Monday, 25 May 2015

Mary Poppins: The Broadway Musical - Stray Cats Theatre Company & Mandurah Performing Arts Centre (24 May 2015)

The evening before the Sunday matinee I was walking along the Mandurah Boardwalk and there was a group of young teenage girls in front of me all singing Chim Chim Chere-ee. “This is an encouraging sign”, I thought to myself. So it proved with the final outing of a five show run packing out the spacious Mandurah Performing Arts Centre with a high proportion of children in attendance. The cacophony at intermission was quite something as was the excitement after the show with many of the cast still in costume including Mary Poppins herself emerging to pose for photos and sign autographs. Fair to say the children loved it with more than a smile of remembered childhood from their parents.

There is no doubt this is a glorious production to look at – from the colourful costuming of the massed cast to the detailed backdrops to the multilevel set itself depicting the Banks household – there was an audible gasp when the stage curtains first opened. Director Karen Francis certainly likes to put on a spectacle and the scope and ambition of her big, crowd pleasing musicals is both a joy and proven formula to attract a crowd. More power to her for the ongoing results, creatively and one would hope, financially to sustain the run of productions other independent theatre companies simply don’t have the resources to mount on this scale.

In Kristie Gray she has a performer who shines in the eponymous role made most famous by Julie Andrews in the Disney movie. Gray has a wonderful voice that did more than justice to the cavalcade of beloved songs. An accomplished singer, she also provided the vocal direction for the some 50-60 cast members. What was equally as impressive was her commanding stage presence – there was a confidence here that really galvanised the whole show. Her work with the Banks children played by Sebastian Coe and Maren Cosby was particularly excellent.

Daniel R Nixon portrayed the chimney sweet Bert with real cockiness and flair while Helen Kerr was a standout as Winifred Banks, the wife and mother who struggles to find her own identity next to husband George (Jon Lambert) and within his social circle. Both have fine singing voices as well; Nixon bringing the Cockney, Kerr the sweetness in their feature songs, Chim Chim Cher-ee and Being Mrs. Banks respectively. 

Lambert has perhaps the unenviable task of playing the distant Mister Banks whose emotional detachment is at the core of most of the obstacles the family face. He does so with a certain gruffness and exasperation that is likeable in its own way. The character’s preoccupation with events at the bank where he works is paid off nicely with a funny burst of manic energy as Lambert lets Banks finally loosen up.

Coe and Cosby were suitably wide-eyed or precocious as required and there was a set of colourful characters Mary Poppins and her charges encounter along the way, foremost among these being Bronwyn White’s Miss Andrews who is the closest thing to being the villain of the piece in an over-the-top portrayal that was amusing and eardrum threatening! Jeanette Southall’s featured song as the Bird Woman was cruelled by her microphone cutting out halfway through Feed The Birds so I was pleased when she was able to be heard in a brief reprise in the second half. Jo Bickford and Nicholas Gaynor added physical comedy as the hired help and Brad Tudor high camp as Mrs Corry.

The scene transitions were very slick and Francis likes to fill the stage with a big ensemble full of colour and movement (Choreography by Andrea Beissel) for the main set pieces. The highlight undeniably is Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious where the massed cast found an entirely new gear and really attacked the lyrics and choreography with relish. This is later reprised at the end of the musical and it was an energy level that I would have liked to have seen a little more of throughout. The other major highlight for me was Step In Time with Bert and the other chimney sweeps singing on a well depicted rooftop. Beautifully lit and performed it was quite an evocative moment. 

Finally, the 12 piece Orchestra under the baton of Conductor David Hicks generally played well though occasionally the brass section felt a little out of sync for mine.

The star, however, is Gray as the flying nanny and indeed she does, albeit briefly, with the aid of a harness. The children loved it along with the flying kites, the movable statues and the brief appearances of a real life dog that, if I’m not mistaken, once belonged to a certain Dorothy Gale in another time and on another stage! 

This was a fun production of an enduring family classic that was enthusiastically applauded as the cast took well deserved final bows.   

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