Gravity defying Mary Poppins returns to its spiritual home
Mary Poppins has been popping up all over the world since the award-winning musical was first staged in London in 2004: there have been productions in Finnish, Danish, Czech, Hungarian, German, Italian, even Icelandic.
Now, 12 years after the practically perfect nanny flew up into the rafters of Her Majesty’s Theatre for the last time in April 2011, the east wind has finally blown her back to Melbourne.
Stefanie Jones as Mary Poppins in the stage production at Her Majesty’s Theatre Melbourne.Credit:Wayne Taylor
This time, it’s Stefanie Jones in the title role, and while she’s performed in the Sydney and Brisbane seasons already, she feels “Mary Poppins has come to its spiritual home” with its return to the theatre in which it was launched in Australia in 2010.
On Thursday morning, the cast and orchestra ran through three numbers from the show ahead of its official opening on Friday. They were, as you’d expect after a couple of hundred performances since opening in Sydney last May, a well-oiled machine, with Jones sharing lead vocals with Jack Chambers as Bert and Marina Prior as the bird lady.
But while doing eight shows a week may hone the craft it can also, Jones admits, rub some of the magic away.
“It’s like any other job,” she says. “Some days, you really just want to stay home and rest and watch your favourite movie. But then you come in and there’s an amazing audience, there are kids who’ve never seen a musical before, or maybe don’t even know who Mary Poppins is, so that helps you bring the goods.”
Jones as Mary and Jack Chambers as Bert.Credit:Wayne Taylor
Chambers, who won the first season of the TV show So You Think You Can Dance Australia as a 19-year-old in 2008, says the chimney sweep Bert – famously played in the 1964 Disney movie by Dick Van Dyke with possibly the worst Cockney accent of all time – is “a dream role for me”. He gets to sing, to dance, to act – and even to tap dance while dangling upside down from the ceiling.
Gravity-defying as it is, though, it also comes with a weight of expectation. “There’s that added pressure that everyone knows this role quite well,” he says, “but I’m having such a ball I no longer feel that pressure.”
Sir Cameron Mackintosh, the legendary English producer who has brought such monsters of musical theatre as Cats, Les Miserables and Phantom of the Opera to the stage, describes Mary Poppins as “the first Australian musical”, a reference both to the fact P.L. Travers, the author of the books on which the Disney film was based, was born in Queensland, and the fact he wrote the first draft of the stage adaptation here in the late 1990s.
It was, he says, “a show that I wanted to create ever since I saw the brilliant Disney movie in 1964” when he was just a teenager about to start his long and illustrious career in the theatre as a stagehand.
He pursued the rights for years before Travers finally granted him a meeting in 1993. “And she grilled me over several interviews and eventually decided she would allow me to have the rights to her books,” he says. It took several years more to get Disney to grant him the rights to adapt the film.
(What Mackintosh fails to mention is that one of Travers’ conditions was that no one involved in the Disney film should have a hand in his production, a restriction that evidently lapsed upon her death in 1996.)
The show is continually evolving, with new numbers coming and going over the years. But the reason it continues to resonate with audiences is that at its core is the question of what it means to be a good parent. Post-COVID, says Jones, that has taken on an even stronger relevance.
“You know, people are sort of feeling a bit off kilter, or are not really sure what they want to do anymore, or maybe there’s been a family breakdown or relationship breakdown, and this story is truly about communication with your loved ones and family, and choosing the right thing,” she says.
“It gives you the chance to maybe turn around some things in your own life, if you wish to. A lot of adults come along thinking this show is for their children. But really, I think it’s actually for them.”
Mary Poppins is at Her Majesty’s Theatre Melbourne for a limited time. Details: marypoppinsmusical.com.au
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