Mary Poppins is perhaps one of the most iconic, yet simultaneously underrated musicals of our time. The story of a family who, despite appearances, are thoroughly unhappy and the magical nanny who brings them together is one that has touched the hearts of many people all over the world. It is the beauty and warming nature of the Banks’ journey as a family that forms the heart of the production, which Director Chris Bradtke has brought to life in Babirra’s first show of 2016 playing at the Whitehouse Centre this week.
When casting a character whose brief includes being “practically perfect” in every possible way, a number of challenges arise. However daunting the task, Babirra have managed to hit the goldmine with Stephanie John who provided a performance that effortlessly met the expectations set by such an iconic character. For the entirety of the show’s duration, John captured the perfect balance of sternness and charm that is so integral to Poppins’ personality. Vocally, John never showed any sign of fatigue or exhaustion and produced a performance reminiscent of Julie Andrews’ original portrayal. Angelo De Cata’s portrayal of Bert was a standout as well, though did seem a little inconsistent at times. There were a few short moments in the first act where De Cata struggled, however his infectious energy and heightened enthusiasm for the role did well to disguise any difficulties.
As I mentioned before, the heart of this show is the Banks family, whose journey and transformation forms the backbone of the show’s success. In similar productions, other theatre companies have opted to double cast Jane and Michael Banks given how demanding the roles are, however Babirra quite boldly elected to cast only one of each child with Eryn Saunders and Elliot Shute portraying the characters over the entire season. Both of these proved to be inspired casting choices. Vocally Eryn served up a performance well beyond her years, with her constantly pitch perfect and crisp delivery. Similarly Elliot’s talent and charismatic stage presence was a real treat, his comic timing and hearty one liners making up many of the show’s highlights. Richard Thomas’ Mr. Banks was a commanding figure for most of the shows duration, and effortlessly captured the emotional transition the character undertook throughout the second half. My highest praise however must go to Megan Coe, whose portrayal of Winifred Banks was quite possibly my favourite of the night. Every moment she was on stage she embodied everything there was to the neglected, yet persistently hopeful character. Her performance of “Being Mrs Banks” specifically encouraged a great amount of empathy and appreciation from the audience.
I would put good money on Mary Poppins winning the title of “Most Cameos in a Broadway Show”, that is to say every major number seems to feature the introduction of a new supporting character. From statues to magical shopkeepers: however short lived some of these larger than life personalities are on paper, it really does benefit the show to including them given how much it amplifies the scale and appeal of Mary’s whimsical adventures. Unfortunately it is in the supporting character department that some of the performances more or less tend to fade into the background and become slightly forgettable. Of course there are some notable exceptions, with Carol Whitfield’s rendition of “Feed the Birds” being suitably emotive, Lizzie Matjacic’s performance of Miss Andrew giving me goosebumps and Jennifer Biggs’ Mrs Brill acting as a great source of comedy throughout her appearances. The ensemble performed quite strongly together however the stage did seem a little overcrowded during some sections of choreography. These shortcomings were easily overwhelmed by some incredibly powerful group numbers including “Jolly Holiday”, “Anything Can Happen” and the remarkably impressive magnum opus of the show that was “Step in Time”.
Technically the production did fairly well, though could have improved in some areas. The sets themselves were quite impressive – particularly the house’s and the bank’s interior which are both incredibly effective. There were a few hidden surprises as well, such as an interactive chimney lift and of course Mary’s enchanted umbrella – which did not disappoint in bringing a little stage magic into the show. Some transitions took a little longer than ideal, however this didn’t impact the performance too much aside from creating a few awkward pauses. The use of projections worked quite well, especially in the visually striking final scene depicting Mary’s final journey across the skies of London. My main issue with the construction of the show lay with the sound department, with the volume of a few sound effects being a little unbalanced as well as the microphones playing up in some of the larger group numbers resulting in a few accidental solos and prominent voices breaking apart from the chorus.
Mary Poppins is a show that resonates so beautifully with audiences because of the fact it is jam packed with fun, excitement and a whole lot of heart. It is perhaps one of the very few musicals whose impact hasn’t weakened regardless of how many times I’ve seen it – and Babirra’s staging of it is no exception. While there are a few moments of uncertainty that require some polish, the show remains a remarkably successful performance that offers something fresh for those who have experienced it before as well as being true enough to its roots to satisfy those accessing the story for the first time.
“Mary Poppins” is playing at the Whithouse Centre until June 12th. For more information about the show or to book tickets, you can visit Babirra Music Theatre’s website: http://www.babirra.org.au/html/home.htm