Mary Poppins has once again flown onto a Melbourne stage to remind us that spoonfuls of sugary goodness will help the longest family musical ever made, easier to sit through.
Babirra has done a fine job of staging this mammoth work with just the right touches of magic and colour.
In the title role, Stephanie John is in the truest sense, practically perfect. Her poise, her facial expressions, her elegance and her soprano were just the right mix of stern and gentle that this role so desperately requires. Vocally, John’s upper register seemed a bit thin to begin with, but she certainly stepped up to the mark by the time ‘Brimstone and Treacle’ opened act two.
Angelo De Cata is a slightly older Bert than one might expect. While his characterisation of this iconic role is spot on, vocally this role proves to be too low for De Cata with many vocal lines so low that they are barely audible or are swapped out for spoken word.
Megan Coe certainly looks the part of Winifred Banks but her lack of vocal colour in scenes means that some of Winifred’s more dramatic moments don’t really land as well as they should.
Carol Whitfield brought a tear to my eye with her very honest portrayal of The Bird Woman and Lizzie Matajic brought down the house with her thrilling rendition of Brimstone and Treacle in Act Two.
I always have such admiration for young children who play the Banks children. Mary Poppins isn’t like Les Misérables where Cosette comes on, sings one song and then sits backstage for two hours waiting for bows. Jane and Michael Banks are an integral part of this musical, and Eryn Saunders and Elliot Shute (no double casting here!) pull it off with charm and an actorial intellect that defies their young ages.
The best musical directors are the ones that often go unnoticed by the general public. It is somewhat expected that an orchestra will operate like a machine that plays when a conductor says “go”. The reality of this is that a schmick orchestra is the result of march hard work and dedication of both the players and the musical director alike. I have admired the work of Ben Hudson for many years. His attention to detail and accuracy are always a pleasure to hear and the results are exemplary. Opening night provided a few teething problems but that is nothing that won’t smooth out over the season. I tip my beret to you Mr Hudson.
Choreography by Di Crough presented some very effective moments including a carriage formation in “Jolly Holiday” and the well executed “Super” choreography, though as a whole, the choreography felt as though it was designed for a larger space. There were a few points in the ensemble numbers where formations looked squashed and busy choreography looked quite messy.
Costumes were effective with some particular standouts being the outfits of Mary Poppins – her “Jolly Holiday” outfit was the best I’ve seen – and Winifred Banks’ stunning opening attire.
Lighting by Jason Bovaird provided some issues with many performers often being left standing in the dark or in the shadows of other performers. There was also use of some very cold lighting states resulting in the actors looking slightly green. Sound design (Greg Ginger) was clear and balanced.
Brenton Staples should be commended for his set design in the bank scene. The use of multiple arches was breathtaking and made the space feel much larger than it actually is. It was clever and looked fantastic.
Long set changes drew out the length of this already quite long musical – hopefully this will be sped up over the season. A few set/prop distractions such Mary’s carpet bag being on stage whilst she was flying with her carpet bag in hand, and “close of business” being 10 to 2 in the morning according to the giant clock in the centre of the bank, slightly detracted from what was otherwise a crisp looking show.
Perhaps the most stunning visual of the show was the final scene. Having Mary fly over the top of the audience to fill out a minute and a half of music is not an achievable feat for most theatre companies, so alternative plans need to be made. The use of projection in this scene was beautiful, highly effective and was perhaps the best of all the Mary Poppins’ I’ve seen (and I’ve seen many!).
Overall, this is a lively and colourful production led by a fantastic young actress which will have you smiling and singing along to the songs you’ve know since you were a kid. Well done to all involved.