Review by Emily Smith
Eighteen years after it first opened in the West End, Disney and Cameron Mackintosh’s musical based on the novels by P.L. Travers and the iconic songs by the Sherman Brothers from the 1964 film opened in Crown Theatre on Wednesday night. Mary Poppins has landed her umbrella in Perth.
From the first curtain up the iconic image of the rooftops of London silhouetted against a dusky sky, with chimney sweeps balanced precariously on crooked chimneys, immediately plucked us from our seats and into the skyline of London in a nostalgic tug. Bob Crowley’s original set design, adapted for this production by Matt Kinley, elicited gasps across the auditorium as the rooftops melted away and a life-size doll’s house opened to reveal the interior of the Banks residence on Cherry Tree Lane, complete with staircase and crockery. I was not the only one whose jaw hit the floor.
Delights kept coming as the gloomy and boring (according to the Banks children at least) local park transformed with (literally) a click of the fingers and a flash of light to a flower strewn wonderland. I shared Jane and Michael’s astonishment at the transitions, the colours, the dancing, and the costumes, barely having time to marvel over one incredible sight before the next one took my breath away.
My inner child was flabbergasted at the stage magic that, even as an adult with good eyesight, I’ve got no clue how they pulled off. Obviously the bigger-on-the-inside carpet bag is expected to impress, but even understanding the concept of collapsible hat stands I still have a suspicion the Disney team has hired a sorcerer for backstage. This is an open letter to Jemima Snars, Head of Props, to call me to explain how Willoughby the terrier managed to bark and jump around on top of Bert’s barrel organ when clearly no one was near enough to be puppeting him. I’m not kidding, Jemima, I need to know.
Not only did the props move in magical ways, the dancers had their own touch of magic in their movements. The choreography was enchanting to watch, and nowhere more so than in my personal favourite musical number, Step In Time, where the entire ensemble were Practically Perfect at every step, on time and with unending energy. Jack Chambers as Bert earnt his burgeoning rounds of applause with the speed of his tap shoes and moves that seemed to defy gravity, including a very special manoeuvre where he literally did.
Jack’s iteration Bert is cheeky, kind, and his cheesy London accent falls within the range of mostly inoffensive without entirely flouting the tradition of the character’s atrocious accent, as started by Dick Van Dyke himself. He is a constant figure of fun and poignancy in each scene, capturing the bittersweetness of someone who is a child inside but knows what is means to grow up.
Young children on stage often unsettle me with their artificial sweetness, however Sophie Isaac and Reuben Koronczyk brought just the right mix of precociousness and impudence to Jane and Michael Banks that I grew to love them as Mary did, while wondering at their endless reserves of energy.
A strong ensemble of incredible performers is accompanying the Banks children on their last leg of the Mary Poppins tour around Australia, each giving 110% to their roles.
WAAPA’s own Lucy Maunder plays the overwhelmed but ever optimistic Mrs Banks who gets more of an arc than her movie counterpart, including a rather satisfying conclusion to her story.
Her husband, the gruff Mr Banks who demands Precision and Order in all things, but especially his family, is played movingly by Tom Wren, whose transition from distant father trapped by toxic masculinity through despairing breakdown to loving father and husband made me want to wrap him in a big hug.
Chelsea Plumley plays Mrs Andrew, the “holy terror” of Mr Banks’ childhood, ferociously, and floored us with her incredible vocals, embodying every inch of the pantomime baddie.
And, of course, there is the titular nanny herself. Everyone in the auditorium, including the little girl in the row in front of me gleeful at being allowed to stay up past her bedtime, carries around the image of Julie Andrews as the ‘real’ Mary Poppins, and those are big shoes to fill. Not to mention her introduction in the first song as Practically Perfect, so the pressure is on Stefanie Jones for the role. Not only has she done Julie proud with her no-nonsense delivery and turned-out toes, she also made the role her own, giving sly looks and the odd wink to the audience. Her beautiful voice would melt any stern bank manager’s heart, and she took command of the stage just as she did the family under her care. I feel lucky to have seen her.
Disney and Cameron Mackintosh have created a show that is exuberant, fun, and downright magical, a must-see for families with children or those who are a child at heart. Mary Poppins runs at Crown Theatre until the 22nd October.