Wednesday, 4 August 2010

Mary Poppins Article

Mary Poppins Strikes The Right Chord
Her Majesty’s Theatre, Melbourne, from July 29, 2010
Arts News article by Kate Herbert
Star rating: *****

What makes Mary Poppins so freakishly successful? Did the GFC depress us so badly that we are in such desperate need of magic in our lives? Is raising kids so tough now that, like the beleaguered Banks’ family, we crave someone like Mary Poppins who whips families into shape and solves domestic problems? We need a Super Nanny who, with a finger snap and “spit, spot, spick and span”, tidies the kitchen.

The children of the 60s, fans of the movie, are now taking their children to the musical. The show is the spoonful of sugar, the antidote for a world that faces wars, increasing violence, repression, self-centredness and greed. For three hours, anything is possible when Mary transports us into her cosy, enchanted world where rules make the world better, not worse.

Musical aficionados, including producer Cameron Mackintosh, and original songwriter, Richard Sherman, agree that our Melbourne production is the best, topping Broadway and London. As the new song says, it’s Practically Perfect. When I met them after the curtain call, song-writing duo Anthony Drewe and George Stiles looked dazed. At the after-party, Richard Sherman told me that the “creatives” cried for joy at the success of Melbourne’s production.

Perhaps its phenomenal success is also due to our exceptional Australian cast and the new star in the musical theatre firmament, Verity Hunt-Ballard. She is delectable as the mysterious, conceited and acerbic Mary and is “the triple threat” (sings, dances, acts). Her soprano is crystal clear; her character a perfect blend of prim, mischievous, pert and bossy; her comic timing is impeccable; and she maintains Mary’s poise and cheekiness while dancing complicated routines.

Our casting is ideal because Melbourne had an abundance of stars available whereas Broadway and West End productions competed against dozens of shows for their stars. Mackintosh said on Melbourne radio that our production is blessed with Australian leads that became stars in his shows. These include: Philip Quast (Javert in Les Miserables, Australia and London), Marina Prior (Phantom, Les Mis), Debra Byrne (Cats, Les Mis, Sunset Boulevard) and Judi Connelli (opera and musicals).

Mackintosh’s history of musical hits is another ingredient in the recipe for success. For Poppins, he wrested the stage rights from Australia’s own P.L. Travers then struck an unprecedented co-production deal with Disney executive, Tom Schumacher. He appointed Oscar-winning screenwriter, Julian Fellowes, to adapt Travers’ original stories into a cunningly wrought and coherent new script with interwoven narrative threads, charming characters, witty dialogue and moving stories.

Mackintosh engaged Drewe and Stiles to write new songs, including the singable Practically Perfect and Anything Can Happen. These fit seamlessly with the Shermans’ unforgettable classics: Chim Chim Cher-ee, A Spoonful of Sugar, Let’s Go Fly A Kite and Jolly Holiday.

Director Richard Eyre creates a cohesive, rollicking whole. The transformational set transports us from the Banks’ staid, domestic home into Bert’s pastel painting of a technicolour park with dancing statues, or to visit eccentric characters in gelati-coloured costumes singing Supercalifagilistic.

During the Great Depression and World Wars, audiences sought escapist entertainment as a diversion from dire circumstances. Nothing has changed. When Mary literally flies over our heads, she allows us to leave the real world outside in the cold. Poppins not only has supercalifragilistic production values, but it strikes the right chord at the right time.

By Kate Herbert

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