The wind must be in the east, as Mary Poppins flies back onto the Melbourne stage in a lavish, lovingly crafted stage spectacular.
Commercial music theatre continues to break new ground in technology and stage magic. Rather than finding this relentless progress daunting, CLOC Musical Theatre again shows that they take challenge and inspiration from this continual advancement of theatre arts. Anything can happen if you let it, and CLOC certainly lets it happen.
Recreating such a recent high profile hit, CLOC bases most of their design decisions on the original staging, with extra flair coming from costumes. There are significant achievements in magic tricks, animated projections and flying, along with gorgeous backdrops and an incredibly large central set for the Banks house.
More than just another entry in the movie-to-musical adaption craze, Mary Poppins was the result of collaboration between two of the world’s greatest theatrical powerhouses, Disney and Cameron Mackintosh. Julian Fellowes (Downton Abbey) expanded and somewhat darkened the film’s content by incorporating further material from P.L. Travers’ Mary Poppins books. The masterstroke was the extension of the Sherman Brothers’ beloved score with additional music and songs from George Stiles and Anthony Drewe. Infinitely hummable, the toe-tapping score is an absolute gem.
Co-directors Chris White and Lynette White have assembled a large, highly experienced cast to bring the colourful collection of characters to life. Diction and projection are extremely clear, although this comes at a slight cost of the pacing being a little slow. Carolyn Waddell’s appearance as holy terror Miss Andrew at the top of act two seems to bring an infusion of energy, and the second half moves on apace. Still the overall length nudges three hours, which may test the attention span of even the most enraptured children (a matinee would be best for younger theatregoers).
Lynette White fills the stage with dance in company numbers, delivering a charming spot of soft shoe in “Jolly Holiday” and spirited tap dancing in the showstopper “Step in Time.”
Under the music direction of Danny Forward, vocals are uniformly strong, with particular precision in harmonies. Marcello Lo Ricco’s expert sound design presents the singing with clarity at a pleasing level of volume, and allows every instrumental part from the pit to be heard with distinct precision.
Chris White again proves that his artistry with the paintbrush will never be superseded by computer illustrations. In terms of animated projections, however, lighting designer Brad Alcock’s team create some wonderful effects, including a cheeky flight from Miss Andrews’ lark and hazy smoke rising from the distant chimneys of London rooftops.
Staggering in number and striking in detail, the costumes of Victoria Horne are an absolute highlight of the design. Deliciously witty and exquisitely lavish, Horne’s costumes fill the stage with so much colour and creativity that is almost impossible to absorb all of the features. The transformations from Victorian greys to mardi gras pinks for “Jolly Holiday” are fabulous, with further full company outfits on show for “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious,” “Playing The Game,” “Step in Time” and “Anything Can Happen.” The diamanté-encrusted, midnight blue velvet outfits for “Anything Can Happen” are nothing short of incredible. The fact that Horne has not been snaffled away by a commercial theatre company is one of life’s great mysteries; meanwhile, her ongoing presence is an immense asset to CLOC.
With a crystalline soprano and charismatic stage presence, Rosa McCarty is a memorable Mary, expertly judging when to take centre stage and when to stand back and oversee the magic. The polished talents of Robbie Smith bring the woefully underwritten role of Bert to life, and Smith and McCarty enjoy a nice spark of chemistry.
With the strongest character arc of the show, George Banks’ journey from coldly distant father to newly re-joined member of the human race is an affecting one. As events of the second act unfold, Lee Threadgold comes to the fore as Mr Banks, completing the journey without a hint of mawkishness. Kristen Beayni displays a lovely soprano as Winifred Banks.
Looking almost more alike as siblings than actual siblings, Mackensie Young and Joshua Vass were utterly charming as Jane and Michael Banks on opening night. The pair pulls off the near impossible feat of being expertly accomplished without being gratingly saccharine.
A trio of highly experienced (I dare not say veteran) actresses adds polish and class to proceedings. Jennie Kellaway scores many a laugh as beleaguered Mrs Brill, Carolyn Waddell delights with the heightened wickedness of Miss Andrew, and Beryle Frees is touchingly winsome as the dear old Bird Woman.
At less than half the price of tickets to a professional production, Mary Poppins arguably represents the best value theatre experience in Melbourne. Book your tickets now, spit spot!
Mary Poppins plays at National Theatre, St Kilda until 30 May 2015.
Photos: Carlos Ramirez and Zac Groenveld