Something about Mary

EXPERIENCED: Matt Lee plays
Bert in Mary Poppins by Disney
and Cameron Mackintosh.
EXPERIENCED: Matt Lee plays Bert in Mary Poppins by Disney and Cameron Mackintosh.

The Mary Poppins stage show has broken all sorts of records in Australia and is set to do the same when it opens in Auckland next month.

The Disney musical - whatever you do, don't call it a children's show - has charmed young and old since it first appeared in film starring Dick Van Dyke and Julie Andrews in 1964.

And Matt Lee, who takes the lead role of Bert in the stage show, says its timeless appeal is because it's such a simple story.

"It's a family story and we're all part of a family. It's really about a dysfunctional family in need of help."

Lee has played the role since the show opened in Melbourne in 2010.

He's an experienced performer who has been a judge and choreographer on Australia's So You Think You Can Dance, worked as a choreographer with Hilary Duff, Human Nature and Guy Sebastian and was the motion capture principal in the Oscar-winning film Happy Feet yet says Mary Poppins is a clear career highlight.

"I love to watch how it affects people so much," he says.

"That's why we do what we do. It's just one of those shows. It's an awesome thing. There's nothing cheesy about it, it's just beautiful. When we break into song it works, it's not cheesy at all."

Audiences in Australia agreed and loved the show, which features songs most people are familiar with, including Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious, A Spoonful of Sugar and Chim Chim Cher-ee.

The show played to sold-out crowds in Melbourne for nine months and it had equally successful seasons in Sydney, Brisbane and Perth, with the show selling out weeks before closing.

About 1.35 million people saw the show and in 2011, Mary Poppins won a record-breaking eight Australian Helpmann Awards, including Best Musical.

Lee says live theatre has been thriving in Australia and he expects the same thing to happen when the show opens at the Civic Theatre in Auckland on October 18.

Based on previous shows, Mary Poppins will appeal to Waikato fans just as much, with about a third of the overall audience expected to travel from the region. "Theatre has been strong lately and it's great to see live theatre thriving. So many people are supporting live theatre now."

And it's not just a female audience, he says.

"It's great to see grown men coming to shows and enjoying it, sometimes despite themselves."

Men are often affected more by the show as it's essentially about spending too much time at work and not enough time with their families.

"That really hits home with them."

The role of Mary Poppins in the Auckland production will be played by American leading lady Rachel Wallace, who's currently playing the role in the Los Angeles version of the show, while another long-standing cast member -and also a Happy Feet motion capture principal - Leah Howard, plays Jamaican sweet shop owner Mrs Corry.

She says it's a wonderful family show and the bits she enjoys most is seeing the smiling faces on families who see the show together.

"To come out and see generations of families enjoying it, it makes our job all that much better."

Howard says behind the scenes is as interesting as the show itself, with a massive cast always on the move.

"Every time someone's off stage they're busy with costume changes, makeup, hair styles. It's really busy," she says.

"We have 43 cast members, but there are 150 backstage."

It takes 16 shipping containers to bring the set to New Zealand and there are more than 250 different props in the show, including 24 chimney sweep brooms.

During the show Lee gets to dance up the proscenium arch and on to the ceiling of the Civic Theatre while Mary Poppins' flight in Auckland will be the longest - at more than 20 metres - of any stage production in the world.

It'll be one of several magical moments in the show and, as Lee says, "It wouldn't be Mary Poppins without magic." Mary Poppins opens at the Civic in Auckland on October 18.

To be in with the chance to win tickets to Mary Poppins - click here.

Waikato Times