BY CARY GINELL
Oak Park High School, which has never shied away from tackling ambitious musical productions in the past, is now taking on Mary Poppins, the popular stage version of the classic 1964 Disney film. With many differences in the cast, score, and story, the show is a challenge for the limited production resources normally available to high schools. But the school’s longtime drama director Allan Hunt loves challenges like this, and we visited him to ask about how the school is planning to get Poppins “off the ground.”
VCOS: Allan, you consistently challenge yourself by bringing difficult-to-stage shows to Oak Park. Now you are taking on Mary Poppins. What are the inherent challenges involved with this show and how are you going about tackling them?
ALLAN: It’s a technical show, and if you don’t do the technical part right, it’s so well known, that if you’re not able to fly Mary, it makes the audience feel like they’re not getting their money’s worth. The movie’s a tough act to follow, especially when it’s a fantasy. So when Mary goes on her “jolly holiday,” we have some graphics that are available from our arts department. When we do “Feed the Birds,” we will have fluttering white doves on our proscenium wall, little touches like that. At the end of the show, there’s a song called “Anything Can Happen If You Let It.” It starts in the park and it goes to Heaven. So we have to have a way to stage that.
We have two casts, as we always do – so we have two Marys, two Berts, two sets of Mr. & Mrs. Banks, and it’s a large cast of maybe 52 kids. When we did Bye, Bye Birdie, we had over a hundred. But as far as the other challenges are concerned, as with most shows that are out there today, they are designed for a proscenium theater with wing space, fly space, etc. We don’t have those things. The Pavilion here at Oak Park High School is an all-purpose room and we do pretty good adjusting, I think. A Chorus Line was ideal because it just required an open arena and with Evita we were able to bring in the screens, but Mary Poppins requires some sets, mainly a living room downstairs, kind of like the Von Trapp home with a staircase and all that. There are scene changes, but we never can close a curtain and do that here. So these are do-able, although we don’t ever like to stop a show. Normally, you’d close a traveler curtain and while the two people are talking out front, we’ll be changing the Henry Higgins set back to the streets of London. Mary Poppins has quite a few changes from the movie and a lot of audiences still expect the movie. There’s a slightly darker tone to the stage version, and for good reasons. I think Disney always had the ability to truly scare us – The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow – really good stuff.
We have a terrific corps of dancers who will make “Step in Time” and the other big numbers really special. Our music direction is done by Heidi Cissell, of course, and Zach Bourquez is our musical conductor. We have a full band this time; we’re not using the pre-recorded tracks. If you remember, we did the patched-through music last year with Evita, so we’re doing it again, closed-circuit, and we’ve made some improvements on that. But the show is a delight and everybody is having a great time. The kids really like it and look forward to rehearsals.
VCOS: OK, here’s the big question: how does Mary Poppins make her entrance?
ALLAN: Well, you know, in the stage version, she doesn’t fly in. That’s in the movie. In the stage version, it literally says “she appears.” I saw it in London when it was first opening, the new stage version. I saw it there, and she was just at the door. And I went, “Whoa!!!” One of the most famous entrances ever! At the end of Act I, Mary wants to teach the children a lesson so she leaves, and they don’t expect that. That’s not in the movie at all. So we have her flying out of our sight. Then, in Act II, when we do the “Let’s Go Fly a Kite” number, she appears, and that’s a big audience thing, she descends through the kites and everybody’s cheering, and that’s a nice look. Then the third time we see her airborne is at the very end. That’s when she flies back and forth. How we’re doing that is a whole other story, but our principal is very motivated about it. You just can’t do Mary Poppins without getting her airborne. But I can also tell you that there are three levels of participation. One is Mary, who does all the flying. The second is when you have Bert, who flies also, and does that famous upside-down tap dance – well, we’re not doing that, I don’t want any school to do that – but there’s a third one where you have Mary, Bert, and the two children fly. She takes them on a journey. But we’re not able to do any of those. So we have her airborne and the team coming in is a team that does this. They have it all regimented. So we’re standing by, waiting for them.
VCOS: What is this team?
ALLAN: They’re from Las Vegas. It’s not Flying By Foy, who do Peter Pan and all those other shows, this is another group. They send in a guy who has all the equipment, we pay his travel and expenses, and he lives here on us, meals, everything. He’s here for a week and it’s quite a thing. So he teaches us how to do it and turns it over to our own crew, our students. It’s all guaranteed and when it’s all rigged, it’s not real rocket science. She doesn’t do flips or anything, she just ascends and in the end she goes back and forth a couple of times.
VCOS: Do they supervise at all or do they actually do the work?
ALLAN: They supervise until we get to dress rehearsal, which they oversee, and then we’re on our own. But we run it.
VCOS: Is everything else in-house? The sets, costumes?
ALLAN: Yes. We’re going to be doing our music ourselves from now on, the costumes, and a mixture of many things. But we still can’t bring the band into the house because of the acoustics. When we did Cabaret here, if you remember, they were upstairs, over the audience, and that was fine because it was a small group.
VCOS: Talk about the differences between the stage play and movie. You mentioned that the stage play was darker. She’s more of a mysterious character in the play, isn’t she?
ALLAN: Yes. She’s not always agreeable about things. She gets a little cross with the children at certain times, and so was Julie Andrews. That part is not lost in the movie. But in this version, when Mary feels the kids are not getting it, she leaves, and that surprises the hell out of them because they love her, and they don’t think she’s coming back. But she does leave a little note saying, “Au revoir.” Then her replacement comes, this awful woman, Miss Andrew. That’s where the “Brimstone and Treacle” number comes in. And she’s just scary as hell. And it turns out that she was George Banks’ nanny when he was a little boy. Then there’s a song called “Playing the Game” where all the toys come to life and they’re human size, and it’s real, it’s great, and it’s kind of creepy because they talk about how they have been misused. The music is kind of a tip-toe, haunted house feeling, and the children are dreaming this, but they are getting the lessons that the toys are trying to teach them about “we’re here for you, but you can’t keep throwing us around and abusing us.”
VCOS: Is the message a little more hard-hitting than in the movie?
ALLAN: Well, it’s not terrible, but although the children are charming in the beginning, they’re brats, they don’t clean up their room and all that kind of stuff. But the indication, as it was in the movie, is that Mary comes in to play when she’s needed, and then when her job is finished and the children have been “adjusted,” she moves on. And the Bankses are so touched by all she did, at the end, they look at each other and say, “You know, we don’t really need a nanny. We can do this ourselves.” And that is one of the major points of this show.
VCOS: The major difference as I see it is that Mary isn’t the main character anymore, it’s the father.
ALLAN: Yes, that’s true. His lesson is a lot more evident in the stage version. David Tomlinson was so funny and charming, but that character is a lot darker here. George is troubled, introspective, and preoccupied. Children are such a bother to him. But his transition is quite touching. He asks the Bird Woman if she would be so kind as to accept the tuppence that little Michael gave him, because that really shook him up when he says, “Here, Father, you can have it. We think you need it more.” And of course, that whole bank business has changed. “Fidelity Fiduciary Bank” is gone and so is Uncle Albert’s “I Love to Laugh.” I miss a lot of those songs.
VCOS: Well, the Sherman brothers cooperated on this version.
ALLAN: I know they did, but I don’t think they had a choice. Not with Cameron Mackintosh’s name up there. They kept the main songs: “Chim Chim Cheree,” “A Spoonful of Sugar,” “Feed the Birds,” Disney’s favorite song, “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious,” and “Step in Time,” which is quite a big thing here.
VCOS: Tell me about who is in the cast.
ALLAN: Allie Mueting and Sophia Stermer are our Marys. Both of them played prominent parts in A Chorus Line. The school likes to involve everyone, so we have full listings for the crew, costuming, and the orchestra. Usually, you never see or hear about anyone in the crew, but we give them a curtain call. What I like to do when I do shows here are casts where it’s about a town and you have all these important minor parts, which gives the kids the chance to get involved. And double-casting is also a way to do that. It’s more work. I have to do everything twice, but it really makes a difference. I have a niece who goes to school in Arcadia and they will just not double-cast and it’s so tough, because if somebody gets sick, that’s it. And it’s discouraging for them because only one person can get that lead part, whereas if there are two, they rehearse together, and the help each other.
VCOS: Are there differences in the performances by your two Marys?
ALLAN: Yes. Some kids copy each other. With others, it’s “I do it THIS way!” So there are many ways double-casting works. It’s also kind of a kids-gloves situation, but in time, they become like comrades. They sit together, they watch rehearsals together, and they cheer each other on, which is kind of nice. That doesn’t happen in the real world, but it seems to help here.
Mary Poppins plays at the Oak Park High School auditorium March 10-12. For dates and showtimes, see the VC On Stage Calendar.