When P. L. Travers penned a series of children’s stories featuring the magically enchanting English nanny Mary Poppins (with illustrations by Mary Shepard), they continued to fascinate readers with every chapter (all eight) published from 1934 to 1988. Yet, it wasn’t until the 1964 Disney film, starring Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke, that the tale monopolized on its spellbinding allure and grasped a worldwide following, complete with catchy musical and dance numbers. It makes complete sense that Mary Poppins would move from Cherry Tree Lane onto the stage and eventually Broadway. And she did: In 2004 Disney Theatrical released “Mary Poppins” at the West End theatre in London before heading to the Great White Way in 2006.
With script by Julian Fellowes (yes, the “Gosford Park” and “Downton Abbey” writer), along with music and lyrics by the Academy Award-winning Sherman Brothers (additional music and lyrics by George Stiles and Anthony Drewe), the show will debut on Thalian Hall’s main stage on Wednesday, June 10. Produced by Opera House Theatre Company, “Mary Poppins” will be directed by Jason Aycock, who isn’t only guiding the actors and choreographing the moves to all those spiffy songs ingrained in our heads (“A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down…”), he also will play the famed Dick Van Dyke role, Bert.
“I watched a video the other day of Dick Van Dyke at 89 years old and he’s still so active and iconic,” Aycock says. “I can’t come close to being what he is. But this show is also not strictly the movie either. It allows us to take what people are familiar with and give them an entertaining experience that’s different from the movie. And the cast, all of them, are doing great jobs making choices that work within the story that we are trying to tell.”
Filling out the roles are Michelle Reiff as Mrs. Brill, Dru Loman as Robertson Ay, Robin Dale Robertson as George Banks, Shannon Playl as Winifred Banks, Debra Gillingham as Miss Andrew, Camille Knab as Jane Banks, and Abel Zukerman as Michael Banks. The lady of the hour donning the black-brimmed boater hat, adorned with flowers and daisies, will be Heather Setzler, who also happens to be Aycock’s wife.
“Jason directed me last year in ‘Into the Woods,’ and it was a great experience,” Setzler says. “I worried that I might take his criticism too hard (after all, his opinion means more to me than anyone), but he’s so easy to work with. He’s patient, prepared, insightful and fun. The same things I love about him as my husband are the same things that make him a fantastic director.”
When Aycock was a child he watched the “Jolly Holiday” dance religiously and attempted to mimic the penguin cartoons’ and Van Dyke’s moves. However, he’s had to reconfigure his love for nostalgia to better suit the live production.
“As you might expect, cartoon penguins are harder to pull off onstage, so they use some other fantastical elements from the books and we get a different set of magical dancers,” he explains. “It’s been a challenge to work around those preconceived notions of the movie.”
Yet, what isn’t lost is the heart at the center of the book and the emotion derived from the loving characters and their spectacular imaginations. Adding to the classic tale is new music and alternative arrangements. Lorene Walsh will be directing a 10-piece orchestra.
“There was fun choreography in ‘Little Shop of Horrors’ and a small bit in ‘Into the Woods,’” Aycock explains (he directed both over the last few years, each of which also featured Setzler). “But this has actual full-fledged dance numbers. I’d say my favorite so far has been ‘Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious’ because we’re using a lot of the original Broadway choreography (arranged through Disney and Music Theatre International), so the cast has gotten to experience what the original Broadway cast had to go through for that one, which is intense but so fun.”
Aside from the extraordinary repertoire of dancing, the dialogue proves to be a loquacious mouthful as well. According to Setzler, words have been the biggest challenge.
“Everything Mary Poppins says is very deliberate, so I don’t want to muddle that,” she notes. “Plus, spelling ‘supercalifragilisticexpialidocious’ with choreography is not something you do every day! It’s almost like sign language but full body. The song is iconic and the number will be a showstopper.”
Setzler is forming Mary Poppins from Travers’ original stories and Andrews’ famed Disney character, mixing vanity and rigidty. But she’s throwing in her own personality to round out an authentic version of the nanny. “Mary Poppins is practically Disney royalty,” Setzler excites. “It’s the closest I’ve ever gotten to being a Disney princess.”
Juli Harvey will mastermind the costumes, and Dallas Lafon and John Deveaux will handle lights and sound respectively. Suellen Yates has been Aycock’s assistant director, which has helped tremendously when he’s onstage fleshing out the scenes as Bert. “Terry Collins has designed some really great stuff for the set,” Aycock adds. “I’m lucky to be working with great folks.”
“At its heart, ‘Mary Poppins’ is a story about a family that has lost its way,” Setzler defines. “What better way to watch them find each other again than through characters who surprise us at every turn? And then the real magic is the family realizing they don’t need magic at all. They just need each other. Oh, Disney!”
Wed., June 10 – Sun., June 14
Fri., June 19 – Sun. June 21
Fri., June 25 – Sun., June 28
Thalian Hall • 310 Chestnut St.
www.thalianhall.org • (910) 632-2285