Mary Poppins the musical is unmissable – and practically perfect in every way

Mary Poppins ★★★★★
Book by Julian Fellowes, Music and Lyrics by Richard and Robert Sherman, George Stiles, and Anthony Drewe
Her Majesty’s Theatre, from February 3

Has it really been 13 years since Melbourne last saw Mary Poppins? My memory of it is as crisp as the super-nanny’s diction. It feels like yesterday that Poppins swooped onto the stage under her famous green parrot umbrella, magic and mayhem streaming in her wake, and this delightful production remains (as Poppins sings of herself in a moment of vanity) practically perfect, in every way.

Stefanie Jones, centre, stars in Richard Eyre’s Mary Poppins.Credit:Wayne Taylor

The show does something rather un-Disney for a Disney musical: it retreats from cartoonish sentimentality. There’s still sugar, of course there is, but the spoonful is more precisely measured than the much-loved 1964 film with Julie Andrews, and the uncanniest of nannies is a subtly different creature.

You wouldn’t want to make an enemy of this Mary Poppins (Stefanie Jones), any more than you’d risk getting on Willy Wonka’s wrong side. There’s no telling what might happen. She’s closer to P.L. Travers’ books in this version – prim and mysterious, ready with a tart riposte at behaviour unbecoming, and possessed of an absolute authority that proceeds from embracing the chaos of life.

Poppins always appears when she’s most needed, and she descends on 17 Cherry Tree Lane to a household in disarray. Despite Mr Banks (Tom Wren) thinking of himself as a “sovereign” – in an uncomfortably accurate depiction of Edwardian patriarchy – the family suffers from an authority vacuum.

The house at 17 Cherry Tree Lane is brought to life in an entirely new way in the unmissable stage production of Mary Poppins. Credit:Wayne Taylor

The Banks children Jane and Michael (played by precociously talented Harriet Adler and Sebastian Sero on opening night) have driven all their previous nannies mad, but they’ve met their match in Mary Poppins, who leads them on a series of wild adventures, instilling wonder with a brilliantly devised suite of spectacle and stage illusion.

Statues come to life and perform masterful ballet routines. Kitchen havoc erupts through hilarious slapstick, before Poppins magically restores order with a spoonful of sugar.

A colourful visit to Mrs Corry (Cherine Peck) prompts an exuberant rendition of Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious (which, in a remarkable display of linguistic dexterity, Poppins can say backwards).

And the super-nanny’s sidekick, the chimney sweep Bert (Jack Chambers), launches his happy feet and thousand-watt smile into a glorious, gravity-defying tap-dance that has to be seen to be believed.

Jack Chambers as Bert performing a tap dance that has to be seen to be believed.Credit:Wayne Taylor

That’s merely a taste of the feast of song, dance, and visual magic fuelling the show. There’s a showstopper in nearly every scene – the classic Sherman brothers’ tunes from the movie bolstered by equally catchy original songs – and Jones heads the cast with an impeccable performance.

She’s a terrific Mary Poppins, as sharp as her Edwardian-inspired outfits from the moment she appears from thin air until the final scene, in which she soars above the audience to who knows where.

The supporting actors are of the same calibre as the leads, with highlights including fine comedic turns from the domestic servants and a showdown between Poppins and the evil nanny who raised Mr Banks (Marina Prior, who played Mrs Banks last time round and has a whale of a time as the camp villain in this).

Needless to say, if you can convincingly trump Prior in a musical theatre sing-off, you’re doing very well indeed.

Stefanie Jones and Marina Prior sing together in a scene from Mary Poppins, which has just returned to the Melbourne Stage.Credit:Wayne Taylor

Mary Poppins is at least as appealing a musical as Wicked. It has almost as many tricks up its sleeve as Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. You’ll get everything you’d expect from a Disney production – dynamic choreography, a sublimely talented cast, the sumptuous sound of a live orchestra, gorgeous costume and set design, and all the spectacle huge production values can provide.

Yet, it is unmissable, too, for the thing you don’t expect. Shorn of its more saccharine side, the show delivers a wildcard poignancy; its joys purer for knowing they must come to an end.

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