The story of Walt Disney’s protracted negotiations with author PL Travers to sell the rights to Mary Poppins is well documented, as are subsequent stories of her regret at having done so, after having seen Disney’s finished film.
Prior to the stage musical’s 2010 Australian debut in Melbourne, audiences were warned that Poppins on stage wouldn’t be as saccharine as the 1964 film, with Cameron Mackintosh and Disney’s Thomas Schumacher having returned to Travers’ original books for inspiration – works somewhat darker than the Disney-fied Poppins.
But it’s that ever so slightly edgier Poppins who Australians embraced wholeheartedly, as the production went on to play sold-out seasons across Australia and New Zealand and receive a cavalcade of accolades.
Sydney-based pro-am group, Packemin Productions, has bought Mackintosh and Disney’s joint vision of Mary Poppins back to Sydney for a strictly limited season. And while some characters and storylines will be new to fans of the film, it continues to tell the story of how the practically perfect nanny Poppins manages to change the lives of 17 Cherry Tree Lane’s occupants, with some magic thrown in for good measure.
Packemin’s pro-am model sees seasoned professionals perform side-by-side with less-experienced amateur counterparts. Those who have managed to attend a Packemin show since their inaugural 2011 production, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, can attest to the genuinely impressive standards the company is able to achieve outside of a well-bankrolled professional setting. Poppins is the latest offering evidencing the remarkable results of Packemin’s endeavours or that (to borrow lyrics from one of the musical’s catchiest tunes) anything can happen if you let it!
From start to finish, Penny McNamee is wonderful in the title role. She demonstrates a lovely soprano range that may come as a surprise to those who know McNamee only from her work in Wicked. McNamee is not only vocally up to the task, but her nuanced performance helps her succeed in capturing an indescribable other worldly quality to Poppins, which Verity Hunt Ballard so successfully achieved in Mackintosh and Disney’s premiere season. Her experience in the professional arena is certainly evident here, and equips her well to lead this company.
No production of Poppins can truly fly without a Bert who possesses superior performance skills and has a strong stage presence. Not only did Shaun Rennie tread the boards in a previous production of Poppins, but he brings to this staging a wealth of professional experience that, again, he exhibits in his characterisation of Bert. His portrayal of the loveable, charming, cockney chimney sweep is a success. He injects the right dose of humour into his performance and has good chemistry with McNamee throughout. His timbre facilitates wonderful vocal deliveries of each of his numbers though, at times on opening night, his accent did seem to slip when he sang. The dance components of his role are all handled extremely well, particularly his show-stopping tap moments in Step in Time.
Sam Moran is convincing as the beleaguered George Banks, his performance involving some particularly impressive sung moments. Perhaps though, Moran’s characterisation in the show’s first half was too angry, as opposed to a portrayal of Banks as just harassed, the latter making him the more sympathetic character we expect. But from the moment he enters the stage in act two for Good for nothing, Moran delivers his Banks to precisely that note. He’s emotionally vulnerable, and it’s that vulnerability that allows his character to then develop as needed for the remainder of the show.
Kate Maree Hoolihan is endearing as the always eager-to-please Winifred Banks. Hoolihan’s is yet another well delivered characterisation. Her acting is on point and she has a wonderful voice, performing each of her numbers beautifully (though she could perhaps take things up a notch for Winifred’s ‘big’ moment – the reprise of Being Mrs Banks).
And while each lead gave us the goods, it’s Jessica Kelly who gives one of the standout performances of the evening as family cook, Mrs Brill. Kelly never faults in her portrayal for a second. While falling in and out of an accent was a challenge that faced most of the principal cast members, it was never an issue in Kelly’s opening night performance. Additionally, her tough and quick to complain Brill is highly entertaining, hugely convincing and absolutely an asset to the strong cast.
The other standout performance comes from Monique Lewis-Reynolds, who takes on not only the talking shop owner, Mrs Corry, but also George Banks’ terrifying childhood nanny (aptly described as ‘The Holy Terror’), Miss Andrew. Of particular note when it comes to Lewis-Reynolds’ performance is her ability to handle the tricky high and throaty notes in Brimstone and Treacle. The ease with which she handles those vocal moments is impressive.
Special mention must also be made of Jane and Michael Banks, the roles being performed on opening night by Stella Barahona and Brendan Godwin. It’s a tough ask to take on these much-loved roles, but both Barahona and Godwin prove they are up to the challenge.
On the production side, Packemin, again, hasn’t failed to impress with a complex set that endeavours to recreate every magic moment of the professional production. And it really is all here – the functional multi-storey house, the fly system and, most importantly, an airborne Poppins! The physical set components, beautifully constructed and ornately decorated, are complemented by a highly effective use of projections. On opening night, there was some clunkiness in movement of set around the space (a disaster involving a set flying in was narrowly avoided) but no doubt these issues will be ironed out with a few further run-throughs.
Choreographically, Step in time is the unquestionable highlight, given the excellent tap work on show performed by a highly capable ensemble cast. Elsewhere throughout, there’s room for dance content to be tightened, specifically the contemporary and balletic work in Jolly Holiday.
Sound also seemed to cause slight difficulties. There were moments when cast members needed to greater amplification above a very full and rich-sounding orchestra. But this is, again, something that should be able to be addressed as the run proceeds.
All in all, Packemin Productions’ Mary Poppins offers a visually-engaging, highly entertaining and absolutely memorable evening of entertainment for the entire family. The stories of the flying nanny have delighted children the world over for 81 years, and this production succeeds in capturing the magic that continues to make Poppins so universally appealing.
Packemin Productions’ Mary Poppins plays the Riverside Theatre, Parramatta from Friday 24 July – Saturday August 8.
Tickets start from $25 and can be purchased here.