By Kennan King and Adriana Hurtado
“Winds in the east, there’s a mist coming in, like something is brewing, about to begin,” sings Bert, the charismatic chimney sweep, in the opening lines of one of Walt Disney’s most successful and popular musical movies ever, Mary Poppins. Sure enough, something is brewing, as Mary Poppins: The Musical blows onto Yavapai College’s stage April 5-7. With a talented cast, a Tony Award-winning script, and timeless Disney magic, this production will delight audiences of all ages.
Director Nanette Hofer, associate professor of musical theatre at YC, is joyfully at the helm. “The story centers around the Banks family, who live at Number 17, Cherry Tree Lane, London in 1910. Mr. and Mrs. Banks are involved with the demands of daily life and cannot give their children, Jane and Michael, the attention they need. Jane and Michael, in turn, are misbehaving to get attention, which results in their current nanny quitting. Enter Mary Poppins, the ‘practically perfect’ nanny, who teaches with magic and a good dose of plunk. She bonds with the children as no other nanny has.”
Hofer continues, “When Mary suddenly leaves the position and mother Winifred hires George’s childhood nanny to take on the job, it sends George and the children fleeing from the comforts of their home. The absence of Mary Poppins becomes more valuable than ever, and the family learns life lessons about what is important. Mary and her friend Bert help the family learn how to value their lives and each other using patience, kindness, and a little bit of magic. Eventually things are set right within the family again and maybe more right than they’d ever been before.”
The fantastical nanny will be flying onto the stage here in Prescott, along with her companion, Bert, the jack-of-all-trades chimney sweep, to charm audiences with an array of dazzling spectacles. Stage magic has never been more entertaining, and the childlike themes and perspectives that characterize the story are displayed through every aspect.
The costuming department at YC is in full swing to prepare a vivid array of costumes – everything from the classic red suit worn by Mary Poppins, to the imaginative outfits actors will be wearing when the toys in Jane and Michael Banks’s nursery come to life. Lead costume designer, Gaea Steinbach remarked that, “With such large and magical numbers, it requires the designer to think on a grand, circus-like scale, using lots of color, movement, and exaggerated design to bring the numbers to life.”
Color will be no stranger to this show, and neither will movement. Mary Poppins whisks the children off on exciting adventures, along with Bert, to lands of imagination which are quite contrary to the staid world in which the Banks family exists. As is natural with a musical, these adventures are often accompanied by song and dance, as is evident with “Jolly Holiday” and “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.”
Choreographers Stepan Oleksyn and Pam Cannedy are including a generous supply of energetic dance styles, including tap, soft shoe, ballet, and a heavy acrobatic element. “Jolly Holiday” will include a strong presence of soft shoe, but the speed will pick up with “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious,” as it features bright colors, fast paced singing, and a Cirque de Soleil-like performance. To top it all off will be the well-known “Step in Time” number, which Oleksyn described as a high energy dance-off between the chimney sweeps on the rooftops of London. As the sights thrill, so will the sounds, as the stage rendition of this classic story is full of new songs by composer George
Styles and lyricist Anthony Drewe. Music director, Scott Neese noted that “they [the composers] do a really good job of picking up on the original flavor of the Sherman Brothers, and I think they did a good job of underscoring the scene work so that it feels sort of like a movie.” The themes carry with them the childlike approach to the story that makes Mary Poppins so cheerful and bright, as they move the plot along with vigor and energy.
Overall, these aspects come together to illustrate to audiences how important childhood is, and how vital family and imagination are to a happy life. Actor Clinton Slay, who portrays Bert, said, “I hope the audience finds the importance in the little things. There’s a lot in this show that shines a spotlight on…how we neglect little things, like our children growing up, and our time with people. Mary Poppins emphasizes that. It’s so easy to go to the end of the everyday grind, and grind, grind, grind at the grindstone. But it’s important to just stop and enjoy who you are and who you’re with.”
Bert is an essential piece to this theme within the show, as Slay points out when he describes Bert as a character who enjoys having fun and sees the silver lining. On stage, this affable chimney sweep also carries another very important role, which is exaggerated within the expanded script: Bert and the other chimney sweeps are guardian angels to the people of London, and Slay notes that, “he’s just always there, and he’s just someone who will catch you if you fall, and you don’t even realize he’s there.” With Jane and Michael’s parents constantly distracted by the elements of an adult world, this role of a guardian angel becomes very tangible as Bert aids Mary Poppins in drawing the Banks family closer together.
Joany Cole, who will be playing the title role of Mary Poppins, explained that one her favorite elements of the character is “her certainty for the kids. Some people say she’s strict, but I think, more than that, she’s certain. For kids that don’t know what’s up from down, and with parents who are not the caregivers, Mary becomes the certainty.” Cole, who was overjoyed to be cast in the role, has put a lot of work into making sure that she delivers on the “certainty” of Poppins, even taking ballet class in order to get the physical aspect of the role practically perfect.
Cole has been focused on bringing the Mary Poppins people originally fell in love with to the stage at Yavapai College, noting that she herself is a purist toward the role. Overall, she is excited for audiences to see this spectacle, as it is upping the game once again for theatrical productions in Yavapai County. The costumes are brighter, the dances are bigger, the special effects are more magical, and the professional aspects of this musical will be beyond what the area has seen. Audiences can expect to tilt their heads to the sky more than once.
When asked about the show’s theme, director Hofer described it this way: “Life has times when we are challenged by difficulties and crisis. It affects our families and those around us. It is how we perceive and deal with the difficulties that make the difference. No matter how busy and time-consuming our day-to-day problems and schedules are, we must take time to appreciate and experience the gift of life: to show and tell the important people in our lives that we love and care about them. Despite our trials, there is always a touch of magic in life.”
Hofer, the same director who brought Disney’s Beauty and the Beast successfully to life on the Yavapai College Performing Arts Center stage last season, is certain that Mary Poppins audiences will be treated to a timeless classic that is beautifully cast and wonderfully costumed, with thrilling dances and uplifting music that will leave people laughing and talking for long after the performances. Theatregoers will walk away feeling like a child again, having tasted that delicious spoonful of sugar!