Gawd bless yer Mary Poppins. And gawd bless producer Sir Cameron Mackintosh for having the foresight more than 40 years ago to see that the 1964 film would make the perfect stage musical. Well, in the words of the super nanny herself: ‘practically perfect’.
Thanks to that foresight, the theatre-lovers of the UAE have the opportunity until May 25 to enjoy this brilliant show being performed at Dubai Opera.
In many ways, I enjoyed the stage show much more than the film. To see the many -— but incredibly slick — scenery changes was a thrill in itself. One moment you are in the living room of the Banks family and the next you are in the bedroom of the two Banks’s children, with Mary Poppins pulling hat stands out of her bag. Don’t blink because you would miss the stage morphing into the London street — Cherry Tree Lane — where the family home sits. Next you are in the bank where George Banks (Neil Roberts) works and then, as if Mary had miraculously waved her magic umbrella, you’re watching in awe as Bert and his chimney sweep pals are brilliantly tap dancing away on top of a roof while singing a rousing rendition of Step In Time.
Every film fan knows how Dick Van Dyke made a mockery of the cockney accent in the movie that received 13 Academy Award nominations. Indeed, Van Dyke, who is now 91 years of age, freely admits that even today he gets real Londoners coming up to him asking “’Ow you got away wiv that stupid accent”.
Bert, Dubai’s Matt Lee, will have no such confrontations in years to come, despite being born and brought up in Australia. Thanks to voice training, his cockney accent holds up to scrutiny. I’m sure the author of Mary Poppins, PL Travers, would have approved as she was also born and raised Down Under.
The final song of Act 1, a reprise of Chim Chim Cher-ee from Mary and Bert, has the audience singing along. Indeed, it was difficult to find anyone, young or not so young, who was not still singing merrily away as they queued to order interval refreshments.
Mary. What can you say about Mary, except that she is played brilliantly by Zizi Strallen.
It’s a part Strallen should know very well, since her sister Scarlett played Mary on Broadway and in London’s West End.
But as far as this stage show is concerned, Zizi Strallen has made the part very much her own. One cannot imagine how stressful and tiring it must be to be on stage for virtually the entire show — and it’s a long show, over two and a half hours. But she achieves it with that cheeky smile always intact.
Strallen must also have a lot of courage, because she spends time flying high, umbrella aloft, over the stage and, in the final scene, above the audience, which, on the night I attended, included Roger Federer and his family. The tennis star’s young daughters would have received much joy from the super performances of the Banks’s children, Jane (Violet Tucker) and Michael (Lewis Fernee). These two parts are shared by four boys and four girls, but with the standard and professionalism of the entire cast, I’m sure none of them would disappoint at any performance.
Bert also shows his nerve and skills when he dances up the side of a wall and then, upside down, on a roof — still singing.
The biggest laughs of the night were brought about by the Banks’s maid, Mrs Brill. Wendy Ferguson’s voice and demeanour reminded me of Madame Thenardier in Les Miserables, which is not at all surprising considering that is one of many parts she has played during her career.
There is not a lot — if anything — to complain about in this production of one of the world’s best-loved stories.
All you can say really is that superziziisfantastic … and the rest of the cast are not bad either.
* Mary Poppins is at Dubai Opera until May 25; tickets start from Dh250. For more information visit www.dubaiopera.com