Mary Poppins Feb. 2012

Now I do realise that this is going to be a bit biased (yeah, what a surprise) as my most favorite actor/singer/entertainer is participating in the show. But that said I will try and be as objective as I can be despite the fact that I enjoyed the show tremendously – all eight times I saw it. 😉

Prior to coming to Australia’s lovely Brisbane I’d read many a raving review on the show, and I hoped the musical wouldn’t disappoint. Well, it didn’t – which shouldn’t come as a surprise as it’s Disney. Which means it’s a highly professional production with a lot of love for details and an impeccable cast – that’s what Disney does best.

I just assume the story of Mary Poppins is well known through the books of PL Travers or the Disney movie. If not, I added a rather extensive summary complete with “songs” and “dance numbers” in quotation marks below. All this because I really really want to delve into the characters of the play first.

First of all – the children: four girls, four boys, alternating the parts of Jane and Michael and each of them such a talent, so absolutely brilliant on stage. As I saw the musical more than once I am lucky enough to have seen both main cast and understudies – and it was a joy to watch them. The kids are rarely off stage (just to get another costume on) and all share an obvious enthusiasm both for acting and singing. Yes,  one girl had better enunciation or was more natural, yes, one of the boys has a face just made for the stage with bright red hair, too. But all in all they were each fabulous in their own way.

Then Bert – played by Matt Lee – he is an amazing dancer with a stamina that is breathtaking. There is this one routine where he has to walk up the walls and then dance while hanging from the ceiling to “step in time” and he is just brilliant. He even manages to sing hanging in the rafters, while tap dancing. I get dizzy just describing it. As the storyteller he too rarely leaves the stage and his presence reminded me strongly of an irish leprechaun, a youthful, beard less version at least, no stranger to trickery but not mean spirited in the least.

And then Matt Lee had to leave for Perth on a publicity tour and Drew Weston had to take over. And he was great – he took a different approach to the part, a more mature, less cheeky, wink-wink one, more the one of a hero in disguise, waiting for his moment, and it worked. While a little breathless during the first few minutes of his performance he was flawless even tho, as he confided at the stage door, he hadn’t stood in for Matt in over five months. He delivered a solid, spirited performance and I consider myself lucky to have seen it!

Mary Poppins – I am convinced Verity Hunt-Ballard was born to do this part. She has a natural elegance and does the part with vigor and poise, and the voice of a lark, and all that without a single hair out of place. I know it’s all down to make-up and behind the scenes work, but the way she is leading is just amazing. Even in the huge tap dance number to “step in time” she is spit spot speck perfect in every way, never losing the natural grace that looks so easy and takes so much work.

This is brought to mind when the understudy takes over – now, every understudy is doing a fantastic job and they are all very well trained, of course. But there was a certain lack of confidence and composure I spotted – and I’m quite sure the rest of the audience was unaware of. The one thing the audience noticed tho was the total failure of the contraption that enabled Mary to fly one matinee. The thing got stuck behind the scenes with the poor understudy in it and they had to draw the curtain and end the show without the remarkable flying act that made the children scream every day. I hear they had to untangle the poor woman who was shaken but not injured. whew.

What bothered me, though: I found some of the educational turns Mary Poppins has to take quite creepy, to be honest, but then in every good fairy tale there is also an amount of horror and in this case it might just be the number “playing the game” – might just be me, though.

Another part where I had the chance to see two different actresses play on stage: Mrs Brill, the cook. Sally-Anne Upton was brilliant, absolutely marvellous and able to take her part and turn it into theatre gold: the way she pronounced the word heirloom will be forever in my mind, the hhhhhhhhhheirloom in question being a dainty vase. Her understudy was very well prepared but lacked in body volume as much as in comic timing, I am afraid. She was good, but in comparison not nearly as good as Upton. Again this is something the audience would not be aware of and I know that I’m lucky to have been able to notice it.

For comic relief and as counterpart to Mrs Brill is valet Robertson Ay (Christopher Rickerby) the right sort of clumsy and well meaning, he and Upton playing off each other delightfully.

Unfortunately I just saw Pippa Grandison as Winifred Banks – she has the least appreciative part in the play. Rather dim and dumb she has to try and find her niche in family life, not succeeding much as a mother, a wife or a lady of society. Her character doesn’t have the chance to shine in a dance number – the one song where she could join she is just allowed to stand there, ruffling her long skirt to expose her undergarments. And she has just one song, “being Mrs Banks”, but sadly the orchestra comes on a bit strong and drowns her out almost completely. I would have liked to see what any understudy could have made with the part, but it wasn’t to be and so Winifred Banks stays rather bland and lackluster in my memory.

Not so, of course, George Banks. Simon Burke is obviously my most favorite actor by far, his talent always as much a joy to see shining as his down to earth personality and his considerable charm make it easy to approach him at the stagedoor.

What he does with the part of Mr Banks is remarkable. From the clearly damaged man, incapable of showing his children any affection or his wife any love he changes through the course of the play into a man fighting for his family and finally into a  loving father and husband. It is a character study, showing change in small gestures and his expressive face.

There is this one scene where his children try to say good night and he finally realises that he is able to show them love without losing his standing as a father – and the kids, knowing that he has lost his job, probably for good, offer him their sixpence – a little money to loosen up the situation (an expression Michael clearly has heard from his father before) – and Banks is just standing there, tears running down his face, from this moment on a changed man. (I do not have to mention that this was also the moment when I reached for anything – usually my shirt – to wipe away the annoying dampness in my face, do I?)

There is also the struggle to find himself again, when he is alone in the park, the charming “good for nothing” he once was and what became of him. Aided by his lush and very expressive voice, Burke manages to be completely convincing throughout the whole musical, treating it as the drama it can be with actors who know what they’re doing. He became the charge that’s been blowing up in Miss Andrew’s face because of mistreatment, and he turns into the man he wants to be with a little help from Mary Poppins, Bert and his own children who teach him how to love them.

Yes, I admire Simon Burke very much and up until now his talent has never left me wanting – and I’ll certainly be booking yet another trip to wherever whenever he announces his next engagement.

++++

The story is told by Bert, a Jack of all trades who loves life and comments on all the family business going on on stage. His imagination is what shapes the story in the first place. – The Banks’ children are everybody’s (certainly mine!) personal nightmare and should be brought to classes on why to not get pregnant. Jane and Michael simply refuse to be broken by Nannies whose only means to nurture someone are fear and intimidation and not a little bodily abuse. Therefore the children act up and their helpless mother – a former not very successful actress – is way out of her league not only to find a suitable Nanny but also to keep her own offspring under any means of control.

The father, George Banks, an aptly named banker with a personal history regarding Nannies, keeps as far away from personal matters as possible – his only hope (mocked by not only his servants but also by his rather dim wife)  is “precision and order” (a new song) – something hard to acquire by the looks of it…as another Nanny has just left the house. This time Jane and Michael try to have their own advertisement placed in The Times – they are searching for a loving Nanny who won’t pester them – and if she doesn’t there won’t be any frogs in the bed or pepper in the tea.

George of course will have nothing of it – he rips the letter to pieces and throws it in the fireplace. Enter Mary Poppins, proper and “practically perfect” (a new song)  she takes over the decision making from wife Winifred and introduces the children to her very own and magical way of imagination. Not only do they go on a “Jolly Holiday with Mary” in the park, even together with a rather unkempt but friendly Bert, they also experience marble statues coming to life, and see their world in – literally – new colors.

So while the children “hope she will stay”, Winifred prepares for a tea party and has the help of her children – not a good idea, as they soon wreck the kitchen and cause chaos. But Mary Poppins turns a chore into a game and soon the kitchen is spit spot speck and the kids even like the remedy they are given – as it is given “with a spoonful of sugar” and tastes like their favorite flavors. Despite all that magic happening the tea party is a failure: Winifred clearly invited the wrong people – upper class snobs instead of her real friends – as they all refused to come to the ex-actress’ house.

The next day sees Mary and the children on their way to George’s office – to experience “precision and order” first hand and see how their father makes enough money to provide for them all. We see him interviewing two prospective clients – a snazzy man with an idea but no heart and a man with decency who, when meeting the children, even gives them sixpence each to teach them the value of money. And then Jane asks her father the all important question: what do you look for in an investment? A good idea or a good man? and it is the first time we see George Banks review his whole life in that one moment before answering: I guess I should say a good idea, but a good man is much rarer and harder to find.

So he invests the bank’s money in the decent man’s plans and lets the snazzy German with the high flying ideas go. Because “a man has dreams” …Unfortunately the bank’s CEOs don’t see eye to eye with the decision George has made – they suspend him without pay until further notice and plunge George into a deep depression.

Jane and Michael meanwhile learn something new, too: that someone in rags and dirty not necessarily is a bad person. The Bird Woman teaches them how to “feed the birds” and to see behind the outward appearance.

Another venture into the park brings the kids and Bert and Mary to the Talking Shop – they buy letters and create a new word – “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious”.  When they come home and share the word, the song, George Banks explodes which leads to the children taking out their frustration on their toys. But of course Mary Poppins won’t have any of this – not only does she berate the children, that sometimes parents need help, too, she also brings the toys to life and lets them explain how the children are not “playing the game” (a new song)  without destroying them. At the end of the song Mary leaves – because sometimes the children have to cope for themselves to learn something.

Days later Winifred has a surprise for her suffering husband: she finally found his Nanny, the one he always spoke of with great respect and admiration. Or so it seemed to her. Because when Miss Andrew arrives it becomes clear where poor George got his inability to communicate from: The Holy Terror who with “Brimstone and Treakle” (a new song) made his childhood a loveless, living hell. He storms out of the house while Miss Andrew starts her education in a way that makes Jane and Michael run to the park, where they meet Bert again, this time a chimney sweep who tells them “let’s go fly a kite”. Which is a great plan as their kite brings back Mary Poppins! And it is the same park where hours later poor George is reminiscing about his youth when he was still the “good for nothing” (a new song) on cherry tree lane. A man who seems long gone now. And the same park where Winifred searches for her children, realising for the first time what it means “being mrs Banks” (a new song).

Back home in Cherry Tree Lane 17 Mary Poppins frees the lark evil Miss Andrew had captured, then forces the Holy Terror to drink her own poisonous potion of  “Brimstone and Treakle” (a new song) and sends her – hopefully – to hell because mishandled charges blow up in your face. So finally when George is brought home by a police man the family is reunited and will face their fate together.

As a last lesson the children learn that a “step in time” is all it takes to change their life – and while the chimney sweeps invade the house, George Banks receives notice from his bosses: he has to come to the bank this evening. In preparation he plans to sell his only heirloom – a beautiful vase – but breaks it by accident. Amongst the shards are glittering stars – collected and hidden away by him when he was still a little boy. And it seems the stars are more important to him than the vase – they are, after all, his only happy childhood memory. With a handshake with Bert for good luck he goes on his way to hear his fate.

But to his surprise – “anything can happen if you let it” – he isn’t going to be cut off; in fact he made his bank a lot of money as the money scheme of the German entrepreneur blew up in his face and brought their rival bank to its knees, while the decent customer’s factory was a solid success.

In the end Mary Poppins is able to fly away again, soaring over the heads of the audience in the most breathtaking way – she is no longer needed by the reunited Banks family where the children are finally feeling safe and loved and even the parents’ dodgy marriage is mended – showing in the tenderest of very romantic kisses ever seen on stage.

The show ends in yet another terrific dance number that works as a curtain call as well, bringing the whole cast on stage again for well deserved standing ovations.

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