REVIEW: Mary Poppins (The Civic)

Mary Poppins
Over the rooftops Step in Time!

A liberal dose of Sugar helps the spectacle go down [by James Wenley]

Mary Poppins
Practically Perfect in every way

Mary Poppins got the Disneyified film to stage treatment in 2004, joining such properties as Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King. It’s a big, big business – 6.5 million people have seen Poppins on  stage, and it’s made over $470 million. Four productions play around the world. While the 1964 film, with its glorious Sherman Brothers Musical score, was full of stage potential, a Cameron Mackintosh penned article in the program reveals the journey to stage was anything but straightforward.

The film is one of the great childhood classics, spanning generations. My VHS was on constant rotation as a child, and our copies cover was destroyed long ago! It’s a brilliant film – the Jolly Holiday live action/cartoon mash, that accent, Tomlinson, Andrews. But above all else, those songs;  balancing the playful Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious, Spoonful of Sugar , with the delicately wistful Feed the Birds, accompanying a powerful story about a father connecting him his two children, culminating in that great humanist sentiment – “Lets go fly a kite”. Up where the air is clear is indeed.

Mackintosh had been one of many pursuing the stage rights to Marry Poppins over 30 years ago, and it wasn’t till meeting Poppins author P.L. Travers in 1993 that he was entrusted with the responsibility. The key decision: although Travers was ambivalent about the film, and had previously insisted that a stage version would have to have a new score, Mackintosh was allowed to marry the Poppins stories with the Disney Edwardian setting and Sherman score of the films. The result? Practically perfect.

Mary Poppins on stage is a joy. Full of wonder and stage magic, it’s like stepping through one of Bert’s drawings and finding yourself returned to the magic of childhood. I wish I’d been able to see a stage show like this when I was young.

(Don’t think I’ve gone all soft on you, my adult Banksian brain does have some choice critical thoughts to add too).

Auckland Opening night was my second time seeing the show, the first was in 2010 in Melbourne.  After touring Oz, this Australian production comes to Auckland (ala Jersey Boys, and it is truly world class. The Australian cast were afforded the rare honour of recording their own soundtrack recording of the show. Original cast member Matt Lee (Bert) won the Helpmann award for best male actor in a Musical. And Mary, Rachel Wallace, comes direct from the USA where she played Poppins over two National tours. Cast members Sally-Anne Upton (Mrs Brill), David Henry (Admiral Boom), and Christopher Rickerby (Robertson Ay) have been with the show from the beginning, Simon Burke (Mr Banks), Pippa Grandison (Winifred Banks), and Delia Hannah (Bird Woman) joined the company from the Brisbane season onwards.

While the trajectory and general incidents are the same, there are substantial changes from film to stage. Gone is Uncle Albert’s laughing tea party on the roof, the horse race, or Admiral Boom’s time-keeping eccentricities. Sequences are rightly given entirely new contexts: In the film Jolly Holliday, where they step inside a chalk drawing and enter an animated world, was a centrepiece for the celluloid special effects of its time. Here, it becomes a trip to the Park where statues come to life (an incident from the books) – strange things happen when Mary is around. A Spoonful of Sugar becomes a lesson after the children wreck the kitchen. That iconic song – Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious gets the biggest change. It is a word supplied by Mrs Cory, who sells conversations and ginger bread stars in the park. Most of the lyrics are entirely rewritten, removing the amusing patter between Mary and Bert (“when I was just a lad”), it becomes a true showstopper as the cast perform a complicated choreographed number as they spell out the world repeated word – glorious nonsense!

Mary Poppins
Over the rooftops Step in Time!

Film favourites, like the Bird Woman, and the chimney sweeps dancing on the rooftops and inside number 7 Cherry Tree Lane are proudly accounted for. The latter Step in Time is an incredibly impressive number, Bert walking the stage’s full proscenium arch.

There are plenty of new songs included from George Stiles and Anthony Drewe, they’re good – but some Playing the Game, Being Mrs Banks, lack the timeless and simple charms of the original score. Mary’s new song, Practically Perfect is a great addition.

While the film was largely episodic, taking us from encounter to the next, at times the stage story creaks under the Julian Fellowes penned overt plot points (the servants, fittingly are amusing). And yes, at times it gets positively sugary with its life lessons. Mrs Banks is worst served by the script – a token backstory of once wanting to be an actress is perfunctory and glossed over, and while she makes faltering steps towards a feminist push, her suffragette involvement of the film could have provided far more interesting fodder. Mr Banks meanwhile is certainly expanded; with the addition of Miss Andrews in Act Two, his childhood nanny from the books, we learn a little of his own terrible childhood. He too of course once knew the magic of childhood fantasy, but has long forsaken it, an adult who has firmly grown up.

Simon Burke is an outstanding Mr Banks, playing the character with full seriousness and pathos, especially as his certainties erode. Lee is cheery and chipper and gets ample opportunity to display his dancing skill. And Wallace sparkles as the enigmatic Mary. The actors playing Michael and Jane, rotated, have a considerable amount to do and hold their own against the adult actors.

The first time I saw the show I was captured by the overwhelming desire to watch the film again, being in another country the moment passed. I felt it again in Auckland, and not having gone away, I watched it again prior to completing this review. It really is a special film – I could watch it with my childhood eyes and be caught in the adventures of Jane and Michael, unaware of the film trickery. The Stage Musical succeeds in the same way, transporting us into its storybook (and magnificently designed) world, constantly delighting in scene movements and surprises in the way that only big budget Musicals can.

At their core though, they share the same heart. It’s about a family drawing closer. It’s about how you should treat others. Its about just work and rewards. Its about loss and fortune, and noticing the wonder of the world around you. And above all, that the wind may change at any moment.

Take my advice, save your tuppence, leave your adult cynicism at the door, and see this show before the winds change and Poppins flies out of Auckland.

Mary Poppins is presented by Disney and Cameron Mackintosh and plays at The Civic until December 2012. More details see The Edge. 

SEE ALSO: review by Kate Ward-Smythe

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