I never really understood that urge to run away and join a traveling show — or, in its more modern iteration, to move to New York and set your sights on Broadway — until I was onstage at the North Charleston Performing Arts Center, smack in the middle of the whimsical Victorian set that will soon welcome audience members to the touring production of Mary Poppins.
Not that I had anything to do with the actual show. I was on a quick behind-the-scenes tour led by one of the many people who help keep things running smoothly as the production travels from city to city. By the time we were on stage, we'd seen the costumes, including Mary's famous red duster, and some of the wigs, and learned that Mary Poppins is one of the biggest touring productions in existence. It takes 17 semis to cart this thing around the country; only fellow Disney production The Lion King has more.
But it's the scenery that, both literally and figuratively, sets the stage for the magic of Mary Poppins. "The theme for the tour production was a pop-up book," our guide tells us, and in keeping with that theme, the Banks' home at No. 17 Cherry Tree Lane is a massive structure that smoothly folds open to reveal a parlor, a staircase, and a pretty little window seat, all drawn in a style mimicking delicate colored pencil illustrations. I can see the allure of living in a world like this — it really does make you feel like you're in a storybook.
Which fits this production perfectly: Mary Poppins is not, as many might expect, a stage version of the movie with Julie Andrews, but is based on the original Mary Poppins stories by P.L. Travers. As tour director Anthony Lyn tells us during our sit-down with him, the two leads, and the tour's choreographer, "The movie is a masterpiece, but we wanted to pay homage to these wonderful stories ... [As a result] the show has more texture. Many people come expecting to see the movie on stage and end up finding something much deeper."
This is surely why Mary Poppins has been so wildly successful. According to a Walt Disney Company press release, as of November 2011, the show has grossed more than $644 million worldwide. Though its initial attraction has more than a little to do with its warm, childhood familiarity and high-flying stage effects, the story's timeless themes are what allow it to resonate with audiences all over the world. "Certain things never change: being able to communicate with your family, the general malaise of work, losing purpose, feeling oppressed. When Mary says to Mr. Banks, step back and take a look — these kids will grow up and then they'll be gone, that's something that everyone, everywhere can relate to," Lyn says.
Let's not forget, however, that in addition to being a timeless story, Mary Poppins is also an extravagant display of stagecraft. The tour travels with 250 costumes, and the ensemble members change between seven and 10 times during the course of the show. It retains, or rearranges, many of the songs by Richard M. Sherman and Robert B. Sherman that were so beloved in the movie — "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious," "Chim-chim Cheree," and "Step in Time," among others — but includes some additional material written by George Stiles and Anthony Drewe. There are huge dance numbers that make use of many different choreographic styles. The production also brings 500 lights to each location and uses brand-new lighting techniques. Stage effects include Mary flying out over the audience (although this depends on the capabilities of each venue) and an upside-down tap-dancing number. "We were adamant to keep those moments," says tour choreographer Geoffrey Garratt, whose job includes arranging the magical moments as well as the ones that take place on solid ground. This commitment to maintaining all the wonder of the original production means that what tour audiences see is a real Broadway show, without having to brave the New York crowds.
Something else that Lyn, his creative team, and the cast pride themselves on is their commitment to the show's characters. Mary Poppins is not traditional, Lyn says, in the sense that no one is simply "plugged in" to a character's set framework; instead, cast members are encouraged to bring themselves to their characters and find their own expressions of him or her. "We focus on the essence of the characters, and find people who match that essence," Lyn explains. Garratt echoes that sentiment: "It's our job to get them to not try, not act — to be themselves." Rachel Wallace, who plays Mary, chimes in here, laughing, "And that's the hardest thing!"
Case Dillard, who plays Bert the chimney-sweep, credits Lyn with helping him "tap into the genuineness of Bert." "I know that if I ever try to be funny, I will fail — Anthony helped me get over that, no silly voices, or faces, just ... don't try," Dillard says. Wallace, too, found that as she put more of herself into Mary the more she enjoyed the part, and this, in turn, helped her to be more true to Mary's character, "because that's who she is — a person who finds bliss in everything."
Wallace and Dillard both have a history with Mary Poppins. Dillard was an ensemble member in the original Broadway production before getting the lead as Bert. Wallace also knew the show well before coming to the role, and her experience, she says, was a kind of Broadway fairy tale. "After I graduated and moved to New York, I would actually kiss my fingers and hit them to the Mary Poppins poster each time I passed it. Every time I saw the show, the more I related to her. My heart just needed to be involved."
Although it's easy to place one's focus on the magical nanny and her funny, lovable friend Bert, everyone at work on this show agrees that the true protagonists of the story are the Banks family. The transformation that they undergo, thanks to the gentle involvement of Bert and Mary, is the real heart of the story, and why what begins as a fun, fanciful fairy tale ends as a moving, poignant portrait of a family's healing. When the show opens, Wallace says, "They're not communicating as their true selves. They each have this habitual, frozen way of being — Mr. Banks has his way of relating to the children, and Mrs. Banks has her way of relating to Mr. Banks. Mary comes in, and they're able to shed these habitual selves and really blossom. That's the part that matters most to me."
And remember that song from the movie, "Feed the Birds"? Its message of charity — the poor bird woman feeds the hungry birds, and provides Michael, Jane, and even Mr. Banks with an example of selfless generosity — is what resonates with Lyn. "Walt [Disney] always said that Mary Poppins was about charity, and at the risk of sounding like a company man, I have to agree ... Seeing Michael be affected by the bird woman, and give his pocket money to his father, and then his father gives that same money to the bird woman ... The smallest acts of charity can have such wide effects."
In these cynical times, such a message is a welcome one.