PREVIEW: Mary Poppins (Disney and Cameron Mackintosh)

Matt Lee as Bert in Mary Poppins

Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious [by Sharu Delilkan]

Matt Lee as Bert in Mary Poppins

When I met Matt Lee for the first time I couldn’t believe that he was over 30.

The star of stage and TV (Australia’s So You Think You Can Dance, Matt has appeared in The Voice on TV2) had the complexion and physique of a young man in his early 20s.

When I gasped in dismay he said: “I suppose it’s the active lifestyle I lead.”

So it was not surprising to learn that he started his dancing training at the tender age of 5. However he says his teacher’s valuable advise to him even then was “learn to sing, act and dance so that you can be versatile.” That fabulous advice has won Lee a number of roles in renowned theatre producer Cameron Mackintosh’s show. And his role as Bert in Mary Poppins makes that a total of four, to date.

Although he was sent the script to try out for Bert, he says “the trick is never to think you’re a shoe-in. I really wanted to get the role but I knew I had to work for it.” At the time, Lee was filming So You Think You Can Dance. He says it was a really bizzare feeling being on one side of the table judging dancers one minute and the next being judged at his audition.

And when he learned that he had nailed the part, he says one of the most difficult things was keeping the news to himself. “I basically couldn’t tell anyone for almost 4 months because they were finalising the other casting. I was bursting at the seams not being able to tell a soul. I did tell my mum but she was very good at keeping it a secret.”

Lee’s other credits include the motion capture principal in the Oscar winning film Happy Feet as well as major theatre roles in Miss Saigon and We Will Rock You. He is also widely recognised as a choreographer for his work with Hilary Duff, Human Nature and Guy Sebastian.

Having played Bert since Mary Poppins opened in Melbourne in July 2010, Lee says this is the longest he has been in any role since he began his career at 13.
“It is very rare for such a big male part to come along, so I jumped at the chance.”

Lee admits that playing Bert has its own set of challenges. “The hardest thing is not mimicking Dick van Dyke since it is impossible not to have seen the production. I’d like to think that I’m playing myself with a Cockney accent. Another challenge is keeping it fresh. However we are lucky because there are different sets of kids that go on rotation so that makes it easier, because it’s like doing a new show every time.”

And of course I had to ask him about his number where he tap dances on the ceiling, knowing that during the musical tap number Step in Time, Bert “walks” 10 metres up the proscenium arch. He also confirmed the fact that by the time he completes the “upside down” journey to the other side on stage right, the reverse side for the audience, he would have travelled nearly 34 metres.

So I asked what was it like when he had to dance upside down the first time. His candid answer: “I just threw myself into on the first day. Short answer – I did it and I didn’t die. In fact the director James Powell said I took to the cross walks the quickest of anyone he had seen – which was great to hear.”

Lee then made a confession to me. “I have slight vertigo, but I didn’t mention that in the audition. I told myself it’s only a short time during the performance and since the lights are shining in my face throughout, I just make sure I don’t look down. The only thing you have to get used to is having blood rush to your head.”

Aren’t you worried about the rigging going wrong?, I asked.

“We are totally harnessed and I know that if the crew are not 100% sure that we’re 100% safe, they won’t allow us to go up there. They test the flight lines before every performance so I trust them implicitly.”

But at the end of the day seeing is believing. So if your curiosity has been peaked by Lee’s insightful answers to dancing on the ceiling, I suppose the only way to find out is to go along and check it out in person.

Disney and Cameron Mackintosh present Mary Poppins at The Civic. Previews are from 13 Oct 2012 and opens 18 Oct 2012. Details see The Edge

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