Tri-Valley Rep to present 'Mary Poppins'
By Lou Fancher
Mary Poppins is a liberated woman's role model. The iconic character from the beloved 1964 Disney film based on the books by P.L. Travers (an Australian-born British woman and author) depends entirely for her living and self-worth on her wit, wisdom and wonderful high-art, low-drama capabilities. She makes horrid food taste wonderful, turns dreaded chores and exercise into a lark in the park and reminds parents to value their children and each other. She's a career woman who doesn't need a man, an employer or the young charges in her care to tell her that her contributions are vital to a family's functionality.
Plus, she's a heck of a lot of fun and she can sing from a low F to a high C. Bringing Disney and Cameron Mackintosh's award-winning show, "Mary Poppins the Broadway Musical," to the Bankhead Theater July 16-31, Tri-Valley Repertory Theatre has found its "Mary" in actor Rachel Powers.
"Mary Poppins is even-keel. She creates peace and boundaries," says Powers.
The same could be said for Powers, who in real life sings lullabies similar to "Stay Awake" to her young daughter, who appears in the show's ensemble. Tri-Valley audiences will remember Walnut Creek-based Powers from her recent appearance with the company as Anna in "The King and I," with Pacific Coast Repertory Theatre as Lady Caroline in the world premiere of "Enchanted April the Musical" and as Cheryl in "The Taffetas." Powers says she's "on a roll with British roles."
But there's more to Mary Poppins' allure than simple steadiness or an English accent that Powers adores. "For kids, she's ageless, flies around, and every kid wants a nanny who makes bad things go away. For adults, it's a character who doesn't change. She's protective of her heart: she's a one-note woman. She has a plan, she accomplishes it. She's like a superhero."
In other words, it's impossible to resist Mary's combination of logic and liberation from most things boring and bad. How else does one explain more than 2,500 performances, nine Olivier Award and seven Tony Award nominations the musical has received since it's London opening in 2004? The Broadway production opened in 2006 and ran for six years. For people like Powers, the Disney film provides a bonus cherished memory.
"I grew up watching it. My favorite song is where Mary holds a snow globe, and in it the children, Jane and Michael, see the cathedral where the bird lady sits and sings about feeding the birds. It's a beautiful song--there's an organ playing," she says.
The musical amends the scene -- live theater makes an image suspended in a snow globe an impractical, less-compelling choice. But the song is included and sung mostly by a real-life actor as the bird lady. "It's still magical however it's played," Powers says.
Other than eliminating minor scenes that don't impact the story, director Daren A.C. Carollo (until recently, Berkeley Playhouse producing artistic director) is sticking close to the script, Powers says. The musical emphasizes the relationships between the parents as much as the expected focus on Mary's connections to the children and other characters. Scenes that include magic, especially an Act II scene that has Mary getting rid of an evil nanny who's been hired as her successor, are "Harry Potter-ish," says Powers. Choreography plays a big role -- and stamina, she says, is her greatest challenge during rehearsals.
—‰'Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious,' which we call 'Supercal,' is jam-packed with choreography. We spell out the 'Supercal' with our bodies. It's complicated, bouncy, free like hop-hop but with the style of the song."
Of course, contrast is essential for creating compelling theater. Quieter scenes show Mary's influence on Mr. Banks, her employer and the children's stuffy, money-fixated father, who learns from Mary to recognize the value of kite flying and unstructured time spent with family. "I'm not in the scene more than observing it, but it's a sweet moment for her to watch his transition," says Powers.
Despite her warmth and unlimited imagination, Mary does have one trait that Powers says makes her not so much flawed, as deeply human. "Bert (a street chalk artist whose drawings Mary and the children are able to "enter") is in love with her, but she just lives in the friend zone. That's the one thing that might be tragedy in her. To do what she must do as a nanny, she can't fall in love. She must say goodbye and move to the next family. Even at the end, Michael says he loves her, but she doesn't say it back. Instead, she says, 'You're a fine little boy, Michael, and someday you'll be a fine young man.' "
But it's OK if Mary can't fall in love. In part, we love her because she's a liberated superhero, free of ties that bind.