If you’re going to bring in the world’s most famous nanny, you’d better make sure the portrayal flies.
Literally. Mary Poppins needs to fly.
Sierra Repertory Theatre brings a soaring production of the Broadway musical “Mary Poppins” into its East Sonora Theatre starting Saturday and running through May 3.
“When you talk about expectations, the No. 1 question when we announced our season was, ‘Is Mary going to fly?’” said Sierra Rep Artistic Director Scott Viets. “So we knew we had to do something. We wouldn’t just have her be on somebody’s shoulders.”
An earthbound Mary wouldn’t be practically perfect, after all. So the foothills theater brought in “The Fly Guy,” Paul Rubin, who has choreographed aerial sequences for the Broadway production of “Wicked” and Cathy Rigby’s Emmy-winning “Peter Pan” TV production. Rubin has helped the company choreograph its first production involving wire work in its 35-year history.
But technical mastery of flight was only part of perfecting the portrayal of the famed nanny, based on the beloved 1964 Disney movie. The production also has brought in a cast of New York-based lead actors who are well-acquainted with the characters. While Megan Buzzard (as magical nanny Mary Poppins), Dan Reardon (as chimney sweep Bert), James Andrew Walsh and Lauren Roesner (as George and Winifred Banks, respectively) are all newcomers to Sierra Rep, each has played his or her part in previous productions.
Buzzard, who picks up Mary’s parrot umbrella, was in the show last summer in Ohio with Reardon. She said approaching a role like this, which was so famously portrayed by Julie Andrews on the big screen, can be a challenge.
“I think there is a lot to live up to with Julie Andrews; she is the ideal Mary Poppins and, of course, I grew up watching her,” she said. “It’s difficult not to compare myself to her. I try to pick up on her characteristics and physicality. But I try to add my own little spin on it to make it more believable as me – the way I say a certain line or look at the children or relate to them. I don’t want to do an impersonation of Julie Andrews.”
Also adding to the differences between the film and the stage production is the expansion of the story. The Broadway show was based on the movie, but also draws from its source material in the original books by P.L. Travers. The musical was written by Julian Fellowes, the creator of “Downton Abbey” who also penned “Gosford Park.”
As a result, the family story is more fleshed out in the theatrical version. The production retains the celebrated songs from the film, such as “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious,” “Spoonful of Sugar” and “Let’s Go Fly a Kite.” But new songs have been added to broaden the show’s emotional arc.
“The focus is really on Mr. Banks. So many people think Mary is there to save the children,” said Viets, who directs the show. “But this version really concentrates on the dysfunctional family. There’s more drama. Like the books, it’s about what they need to do to be enlightened and repair their family. It’s very interesting that way.”
Walsh, who played the role of Mr. Banks this past summer in a Rhode Island production, said stepping into another version of the show allows him to have an even deeper understanding of the character and his story.
“He is an adult who goes through an adult experience. That allows the whole show to hang on a story that has more gravitas,” Walsh said. “There’s a wonderful song at the end of the show called ‘Anything Can Happen If You Let It.’ I think the takeaway from the show is just that. I think there are things in life that don’t happen because we don’t let them happen. The journey of Mr. Banks is relatable to just about anyone who has something in life they want to happen.”
And then, of course, there’s the flying. Buzzard and Reardon both do wire work for the show. But Reardon said the physicality – not to mention magic – of the characters comes through in other ways, too. The show has lots of dance numbers and special effects to show off all of Mary’s unique skills.
Reardon said he hopes audiences will come away from the production “with a bigger appreciation of the family aspect of the story. It really becomes a lesson about appreciating what you have, appreciating your family and the love in your life.”