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Review: MARY POPPINS at The Festival Theatre, Adelaide

Review by Lisa Lanzi


Adelaide finally gets to see Mary Poppins fly into the Festival Theatre after missing out during the first Australian iteration in 2010. Cameron Mackintosh and Disney Theatrical Productions have reintroduced the musical with a national tour this year and it is still full of wonder, colour, and talent.


Adapted from PL Travers’ marvellous stories (beginning in 1934) plus elements of the original Disney film, the book is from Academy Award-winning screenwriter Julian Fellowes and choreography by Matthew Bourne. The latter (beside Co- Choreographer Stephen Mear) received the 2005 Olivier Award for their work on Mary Poppins. Still containing some of the much loved original music and lyrics by Richard M. Sherman and Robert B. Sherman, the work is updated with new songs and additional music and lyrics. These include the now celebrated Practically Perfect and Anything Can Happen from George Stiles and Anthony Drew. It is fascinating to read Cameron Mackintosh’s account of his ‘wooing’ of Travers, his determination to get the musical to the stage, his intent to honour the writer’s wishes, and the assembling of a brilliant creative team.


Stefanie Jones and Jack Chambers portray a winning Mary and Bert, devoted friends and co-conspirators finding the magic in the everyday. A glowing Jones embodies the lead character with precise posture, dry pronouncements and beautifully modulated vocals, not to mention excellent footwork in the dance numbers. Chambers warmth as Bert is matched by his flawless physicality including some daring aerial work during Step In Time that I don’t want to spoil; it just has to be witnessed in person. Tom Wren as George Banks gives a powerful performance and credibility to the personal transformation this father figure undergoes. Lucy Maunder is an elegant but fun Mrs Banks, her sure acting and strong vocals shining in Being Mrs Banks. Helen Walsh and Gareth Isaac are a terrific team as housekeeper Mrs Brill and her offsider Robertson. Both have impeccable comic timing and imbue their characters with the right amounts of silliness. The two children playing Jane and Michael Banks on opening night were impressive, working well within the ensemble and beside the lead performers.


A tight ensemble is the backbone of any production and here their energy, commitment, talent, and joy lifted the whole production through their energetic and brilliant singing and dancing. Many of these performers also took on, and shone, in cameo roles throughout and truly reveal what an extraordinary range of musical theatre talent we have to draw on in Australia. As the devious Miss Euphemia Andrew (the ‘holy terror’) Chelsea Plumley exhibited notable vocal range and power, and perfect characterization. Robert Grubb also displayed his acting gravitas with two characters, Admiral Boom and Chairman of the Bank.


It is fortunate the cast are so eminently talented as the sets and costumes, not to mention the elements of ‘magic’ and illusion, are so captivating they might well have stolen the limelight. With such a known and well-loved story, it is imperative that the environment suits the theme and the atmosphere. The reimagined set and costume designs by Bob Crowley are striking, whimsical, and ingenious. The Banks’ home on Cherry Tree Lane unfolds, and rotates, a little like a doll’s house, to reveal interiors, while Michael’s and Jane’s attic bedroom descends from above. At various times the park scene and lively statuary, Mrs Corry’s shop, the Bank interior, the steps of St Pauls, and the rooftops of London appear seamlessly and within seconds we are transported to ‘otherness’ when lighting and costume changes depict the illusory worlds Mary Poppins can call up.


The most energetic and successful song for me was Step in Time. This number cannot be beaten for the creative choreography peppered with energetic leaps, turns, and the excellent tap dancing. Of course, Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious is a close second with its hilarity and charm and the sheer numbers of folk on stage. All the musical numbers are ‘practically perfect’ really, to quote Ms Poppins, but I was also very admiring of the carefully crafted scene transitions where nothing jarred, the performers kept the energy flowing, and the whimsy continued - particularly when Bert or Mary might ‘click’ a lighting change into being.


All in all, this production will thrill even the most reluctant of musical theatre goers. Great timing too for the families in South Australia who are starting school holidays! There is simply so much to wonder at and still more to be amazed by. The finale is quite jaw-dropping and probably one of the most exciting musical theatre exits I’ve ever witnessed. Kudos too must be sent to the entire tech crew with special mentions for the riggers continuously keeping everyone safe.

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