The winds have changed and Mary Poppins has made her long-awaited return to Melbourne’s Her Majesty’s Theatre.
Adapted for the stage from the original stories of PL Travers and with dashes of inspiration from the 1964 film, Cameron Mackintosh first brought the production to London’s West End in 2004. Almost 20 years later, and 12 years after the original Australian production at the very same theatre, Mary Poppins has been improved and tweaked into the masterpiece it is today.
With the original music and lyrics by Richard M. Sherman and Robert B. Sherman, book by Julian Fellows and additional music, lyrics, dance, and vocal arrangements by George Stiles and Anthony Drewe, along with Disney’s Theatrical Producer Thomas Schumacher and Executive Producer Michael Cassel AM, and director Richard Eyre at the helm, Mary Poppins has a slew of talented creatives that help bring her story to life. But does it live up to expectations? Let’s just say that this jaw-dropping masterpiece had me looking like a codfish!
Having never seen the original Australian production, I was excited to finally get the chance to see it on stage. Whilst I have never read the books, I have long been a fan of the film. I even rewatched the film during the week and I was curious to see how the production was going to bring that magic to life. The musical opens with Jack Chambers as Bert with a beautiful performance of ‘Chim Chim Cher-ee’. We are then introduced to the Banks family with Tom Wren and Lucy Maunder as George and Winifred Banks, respectively. And of course, the Banks children. A role shared in the production by multiple members of the child cast with, Harriet Alder, Ava Caller, Amara Kavaliku and Page Punsalang as Jane Banks. And Xavier Daher, Fraser Goodreid, Luka Sero, and Sebastian Sero as Michael Banks.
With their current nanny leaving in a hurry, the Banks family are seeking a replacement. However, the parents and children have very different ideas as to who is best suited to care for them. With new songs, ‘Cherry Tree Lane Parts One and Two’ split by the children’s ideal companion with ‘The Perfect Nanny’, Stefanie Jones, in the titular role of Mary Poppins, magically appears on stage. Complete with her famous umbrella, we are given another new number with ‘Practically Perfect’. It is here we get a taste of the magic that this production has to offer. I was already beyond impressed and we had barely gotten started.
With Act One consisting more of the classic favourites such as ‘Jolly Holiday’ and ‘Spoonful of Sugar’, we are also introduced to Robert Grubb in a dual role of Admiral Boom and Chairmen of the Bank with ‘Precision and Order’. Towards the end of Act 1, we meet the one and only Marina Prior. Prior is no stranger to the world of Mary Poppins as she played Mrs Banks in the 2011 Australian production. This time around, she has a dual role of the sweet and sincere character of the Bird Woman and the fearful nanny Miss Andrew. And of course, Mary Poppins wouldn’t be the classic it is today without everyone’s favourite number ‘Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious’. This song is so much fun to see live and the cast had the entire audience clapping along by the end of it.
Our seats for opening night were upstairs and I was so thankfully to have this view, as there is so much to see! Just prior to ‘Jolly Holiday’ when Bert is reacquainted with Mary Poppins, her shadow casts a perfect silhouette next to Bert drawing on the ground. The effect is so subtle yet so very effective and reminiscent of the film. I would not have appreciated it as much if I was sitting below. The shadow play is expertly shown throughout the production, and I need to commend Hugh Vanstone and Natasha Katz for lighting design for a job well done.
The stage design is absolutely stunning. The house at Cherry Tree Lane effortlessly transforms from a living room to a nursery, and even a rooftop. Even the bright and colourful visuals of the park scenes are beautiful. Not only has Bob Crowley outdone himself with the scenery design, but he has smashed it with the costume design as well. There are so many more creatives of Mary Poppins that have created a stunning show, and they all need to be commended.
Marina Prior as the Yin and Yang characters of Miss Andrew and Bird Woman is phenomenal. The kindness in her eyes and sweet vocals as the Bird Woman made my heart so full. ‘Feed the Birds’ is an iconic number of Mary Poppins and I couldn’t imagine anyone else performing this role. And yet, her ability to flip a switch and dive into the fearfulness of Miss Andrew was flawless. I adored both her characters in different ways. Miss Andrew was not just fearful, but Prior was also able to bring out the comical nature of the character. Her vocals are unmatched, she looked like she was having so much fun playing both roles, and it was an honour to see her effortlessly showcase duality with such precision and class.
Stephanie Jones is exactly how I pictured Mary Poppins to be. Sweet, kind, stern, and a little bit cheeky, with a dash of dry humour. Not only has Jones completely nailed the personality of Mary Poppins, but also her posture and body language. With impressive vocals and dance chops to match, she is the perfect Mary, and yet still makes the role her own. Not to mention the chemistry between her and Jack Chambers made my heart sing.
The Banks family are all great in their respective roles. Opening night lucked us out on witnessing the fantastic talents of 12-year-old Harriet Adler and 10-year-old Sebastian Sero in the roles of Jane and Michael, and the chemistry that they had with both Chambers’ Bert and Jones’ Mary Poppins was believable and endearing. Tom Wren is outstanding as George Banks. Not only is his portrayal musically wonderful, but I also really felt and could relate to his anxiety and depression as the uncertainty of his job weighed heavily on him. Lucy Maunder as Mrs Banks is equally as good and the comical relief from Hannah Waterman and Gareth Isaac as Mrs Brill and Robertson Ay is a delight to witness.
However, there is one member of the cast that completely steals the show and that is none other than Jack Chambers as Bert. Vocally he is faultless and the beaming grin on his face the entire time is utterly infectious. I was filled with joy every time Chambers stepped on stage. His dancing skills are out of this world! If that wasn’t enough, with the entire ensemble cast behind him, he completely blew the roof off Her Majesty’s Theatre with an epic performance during the energetic classic, ‘Step in Time’. The tap number in the middle of this piece completely left me in awe. Furthermore, his body language, facial expressions and overall embodiment of Bert’s character is the best I have seen since Dick Van Dyke in the film. It was almost like he was born to play this role. And if that wasn’t enough, Chambers took the performance to new heights, quite literally! I won’t spoil how, so you will just have to go and see it.
Many productions tend to lose their magic as they evolve over time and become modernised for newer audiences. But not Mary Poppins. This beautiful and enchanting tale remains a timeless classic, and this production beats with a heart just as strong as the original production and film that preceded it. There is also this overwhelming happy and wholesome vibe from the entire cast that I just cannot shake.
You will leave Mary Poppins with a smile on your face as there is so much to love. From the incredibly talented cast to the amazing creatives behind the scenes, this entire production is a masterclass of musical theatre. And yes, Mary Poppins truly is practically perfect in every way!
Mary Poppins is now playing at Melbourne’s Her Majesty’s Theatre until Sunday the 30th of April 2023. So, “Spit spot” and get your tickets before the wind changes and Mary Poppins makes her way to Adelaide, landing in July 2023. This is one magical production you do not want to miss!
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Photography by Grant Alexander.