It has been seven months since the Civic Theatre was last able to stage a show, and I didn't know how much I'd missed that star-covered ceiling or those steely eyed lions guarding the stage until I sat down, surrounded on all sides by a socially un-distanced crowd equally thrilled to be back.
I too had never thought I'd be so excited by the prospect of Mary Poppins, but after all the struggles the arts industry has endured this year have been little discussed, this is the spoonful of sugar the industry needs to wash away the Covid blues.
Staged by local company The Amici Trust, last at the Civic Theatre for 2019's glorious Les Misérables, this much-delayed production has finally debuted in Auckland, and it is probably the most perfectly upbeat production to help our local scene roar back to life.
Fans of the 1964 movie will find the plot familiar, even if it takes a few different paths to reach the same destination. Troublesome children Michael and Jane Banks, largely ignored by their dismissive father George, scare away a succession of nannies, until the magical Mary Poppins literally floats into their world and helps the entire family learn to appreciate each other.
Many of the tricks that made the film such a classic are impossible to replicate here, but Amici has managed its own theatrical magic that brilliantly utilises the confines and possibilities of the stage.
The set, from designer John Harding, consists mostly of a large box that unfolds to make the Banks' home, a simple but brilliant feat of engineering that also provides a blank backdrop to help the rest of 1910's London and Poppins' world come to life. The more colourful aspects of the play shine through in Stephen Robertson's costumes; they are of a Broadway calibre, particularly during Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious, where the quality and brightness of his creations add an extra flourish to one of the musical's standout moments.
When the show really kicks off, it is impossible to look away. The songs the Sherman Brothers wrote six decades ago are still as energetic and delightful now as they were then, and have translated flawlessly to the stage. Anyone that doubts a New Zealand cast can match the original performances should witness the captivating performances and powerful vocals – particularly Hamish Mouat in his standout role as Bert.
Step in Time and Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious showcase the talents of the whole ensemble and production to full effect, with flawless choreography heightened by the dazzling costumes and technical capabilities, delivering the sort of performance the Civic was designed for.
Those moments make the long wait for theatre to return worthwhile, but even the most eager musical fan probably would have been better suited to a shorter show. The book by Downton Abbey's Julian Fellowes drags the story needlessly to the point that you start to notice every second of the over two-and-a-half-hour runtime.
Perhaps that was why some unfortunate mistakes stood out; the opening night showcase was blighted with broken set pieces and tumbling props, which seemed minor before the painfully awkward final moments. Choosing to do Mary Poppins relatively soon after the original Disney production was here – where Mary flew from the stage to the very back of the Civic - was always going to be a tough act to follow, but it was an unfortunate, cringe-inducing moment when something clearly went wrong with the cable, and Mary's truncated flight to one of the royal boxes failed to even take flight.
These problems can happen to the best of them – Aladdin's time in the Civic last year was blighted at times by a magic carpet that refused to float.
While it may take that Disney sparkle to make this show truly fly, you cannot deny what a feat it is staging a production on this scale in these times. With Broadway closed until next year and the West End battling ongoing restrictions, the fact that the Civic is full to bursting again without restrictions seems as impossible in these times as a magical nanny floating in on the wind.
It's by no means as perfect as Mary herself, but those starved of a night out will find plenty here to entertain and enchant the whole family, and celebrate our successes with a few well-earned song and dance numbers – how could you possibly turn that down?
What: Mary Poppins
Where: The Civic Theatre, until November 1
Reviewer: Ethan Sills