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It’ll cost you over $130 for a good seat at Mary Poppins. But unlike other musical theatre experiences, you’ll skip out feeling you got your money’s worth.

Stage magic like this doesn’t come cheap. This is blockbusting theatre, a dizzying, dazzling spectacle. Mary‘s Australian debut presents a stage crowded with talent; a visually transportive, aurally rich, totally immersive experience. It’s what unashamed lovers of grand, glorious musical theatre salivate over.

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Spoonful of sugar? More like a teeth-rotting truckload. This is Disney, after all: shamelessly commercial, ubiquitously crowd-pleasing, completely irresistible.

It’s practically perfect, as Mary sweetly trills. Something just a little short of, perhaps. I’ve seen this twice now — in New York a year into its Broadway run and last week’s Melbourne premiere (at least as good, if not better) — and I still have some problems with the narrative. Those who grew up with the 1964 film will find new sub-plots and new songs that don’t always meld.

West End wizard Cameron Mackintosh spent years negotiating with Walt’s empire over those timeless songs (from brothers Richard and Robert Sherman) and Australian-born author Pamela Lyndon Travers (reportedly unhappy with the film and reluctant to allow a theatrical creation) to bring Mary to the stage. There’s new songs from George Stiles and Anthony Drewe (Practically Perfect is an instant toe-tapper) and a script from screenwriter Julian Fellowes that uses Travers’ original novel to fill in some blanks.

Sometimes it feels like an excuse to incorporate a tune, that all-too-easy crime of musical theatre (the Spoonful of Sugar number is transported from the untidy bedroom in the film to a fairly inexplicable cake-baking exercise in the kitchen; Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious is set, unimaginatively perhaps, in a mythical letters’ shop). Other songs seemingly exist deliberately to attract and showcase a star (Marina Prior’s charming Being Mrs Banks; as George Banks, Philip Quast’s Good For Nothing; while Judi Connelli, as wicked anti-Mary Miss Andrew, hams it up in Brimstone and Treacle).

And then the scene magically changes before your eyes, a familiar tune — Chim Chim Cher-ee, Step In Time, Let’s Go Fly A Kite, Jolly Holiday; take your pick — rings out and it hardly matters. The 16-strong orchestra (under the baton of Michael Tyack) reverberates around the beautifully decorated Her Majesty’s Theatre, the grandiose sets and mind-bending special effects are genuinely eye-popping (scaled down slightly from the Broadway incarnation originally directed by Richard Eyre without losing any of the spectacle) and every performer seems perfectly cast.

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The expectation around Verity Hunt-Ballard (above) — Mackintosh says she’s one of his best leading ladies — is thoroughly deserved. The namesake role made famous by Julia Andrews is exhausting and requires great acting skill in balancing Mary’s conceit and charm. With the stiffest of upper lips that curls into a winning smile, the WAAPA graduate does it with aplomb, with a voice that soars as high as she does above the stage. It’s a performance that will earn her many accolades and a long career on the stage here and overseas.

As Bert, Matt Lee doesn’t have the strongest voice on stage (but then, neither did Dick Van Dyke). Instead, with a soft shoe shuffle and a cheeky sparkle in the eye he wins over the audience and proves more than just a choreographer (whose fame grew as a judge on reality TV hit So You Think You Can Dance) but as a prodigious performer in his own right. Led by Lee — who in a thrilling highlight tap dances on the roof, no less — the show-stopping dance numbers designed by West End favourites Matthew Bourne and Stephen Mear are simply exhilarating.

Quast and Prior bring some level-headed stage experience and are completely assured as the Banks parents. Debra Byrne is unrecognisable as the grimy Bird Woman, but in a small role still shines on the back of a stirring rendition of Feed The Birds, while Connelli, Sally-Anne Upton (Mrs Brill) and Christopher Rickerby (Robertson Ay) offer the well-timed slapstick.

And then you’ve got the kids, a precocious brood of five prepubescents sharing each of the roles of Jane and Michael Banks. On opening night Kurtis Papadinis and Hayley Edwards, rudely talented both, had the honour and were exceptional.

There’s nothing contrary about this Mary. In the best traditions of Disney entertainment it is giddy, all-ages fun. Musical theatre at its near-best.

Curtain Call score: A-

The details: Mary Poppins is playing Her Majesty’s Theatre in Melbourne. Tickets for shows until November are available at Ticketek.

As a Crikey subscriber and someone who began working as a journalist in 1957, I am passionate about the importance of independent media like Crikey. I met a lot of Australians from many walks of life during my career and did my best to share their stories honestly and fairly with their fellow citizens.

And I never forgot how important it is to hold politicians to account. Crikey does that – something that is more important now than ever before in Australia.

Liz
North Stradbroke Island, QLD

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