Making Mary Poppins

With upside-down dancing and more family drama, play stands apart from classic film

July 08, 2010|By Mary Carole McCauley, The Baltimore Sun

Actor Gavin Lee might be the first actor ever to tap-dance upside-down across the ceiling in real time.

Lee is the likable, gravity-defying performer who for the past six years has performed as Bert the chimney sweep in Cameron Mackintosh's blockbuster stage version of " Mary Poppins." The national touring production of "Poppins" has just blown into the Kennedy Center (presumably on the east wind), where it will remain through Aug. 22.

Lee originated the role in London in 2004, stayed with the character when the show transferred to Broadway, and now is portraying the Cockney charmer during the tour. Bert's big stunt comes during the musical extravaganza "Step in Time," and Lee thinks he is the first performer ever to tap out a routine while head over toes. Not only does he have to stay on beat during the number's notoriously fast rhythms, he also has to belt out a few lines of the song.

" Fred Astaire danced on the ceiling in 'Royal Wedding,' and Lionel Richie did it, too in a music video," Lee says. "But they remained upright while the set rotated all around them. This might be the first time it's ever been done live."

But Lee's little upside-down stroll, however spectacular, is just one of the surprises that the production has in store for audiences. The stage version of "Poppins" differs in significant ways from the beloved 1964 movie starring Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke.

For instance, young Jane and Michael Banks are not the sugary-sweet innocents that their press agents would have us believe.This little Master and Miss throw eardrum-shattering temper tantrums, tear the arm off a stuffed doll, and are so thoroughly obnoxious that their toys revolt.

"I love the film, too, but a live show is a very different animal," says Julian Fellowes, the Oscar-winning scribe ("Gosford Park") who wrote the script for the stage version of "Poppins."

"Taking the whole family to a musical is a big expenditure, especially in this day and age. I wanted to make sure that there was something in it for children and their parents. I wanted to be true to the books by P.L. Travers without losing the magic of the movie."

In this "Poppins," the children's mother is no longer a suffragette, but a retired actress. New characters, such as the father's evil former nanny, amusingly named "Miss Andrew," enjoy extended stage time. And the character most transformed by the visit of the practically perfect Poppins is the children's workaholic father, George Banks.

"The film has no villains," Fellowes says, "not even a minor one. Mary Poppins arrives to fix the problems of a family that don't have any. If the stage show had a subtitle, it would be, "On the Saving of George Banks. The children are devastated by the father's dysfunction."

But movie fans have no reason to fear. Such favorite songs as "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious" and "A Spoonful of Sugar" remain, plus several new ones.

And nearly all of the film's most famous scenes remain, albeit with the necessary modifications required by a real-time performance. For example, when Mary, the kids and Bert jump through the sidewalk, they are not surrounded by animated characters, as they are in the film. Instead, statues in the park come to life.

Only the famous tea party on the ceiling has been axed.

"We didn't want to do anything on stage that we couldn't do at least as well as the movie," Fellowes says.

Some stage moments — such as Lee's ceiling-walking stunt — are even more impressive when performed in front of a live audience than they ever could be on film.

"Tap-dancing upside down was scary at first," Lee says.

"The first time I did it, all the technique I'd been practicing went out the window. I was so high up, and those wires supporting me looked so thin. I didn't want to look down and see the hard stage below. But by now, I'm quite used to it."

This is how he pulls off his amazing feet. Er, feat::

A cable is attached to each hip. Lee starts up the stage wall at an angle roughly 90 degrees to the stage floor, covering approximately 30 feet with a few giant, stiff-legged strides. When he reaches the top, he steps onto a moving platform. For half a minute, the platform moves slowly across the ceiling while Lee tap-dances in place atop it. Then he steps onto the other side of the wall, and walks down the wall to the stage floor at the same angle he walked up it, hands tucked nonchalantly in his pockets.

The stunt never fails to receive thunderous applause.

"I've been doing this for six years now," Lee says. "The only problem I have is if I've eaten just before the performance, or hydrated myself too much during the show. I get to where I'm upside down, and I say to myself, 'Oh no, I'm going to be sick.' But luckily, that's never happened."

mary.mccauley@baltsun.com

If you go

"Mary Poppins" runs through Aug. 22 at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, 2700 F St. N.W., Washington. $25-$135. Call 1-800-444-1324 or go to http://www.kennedy-center.org for showtimes.

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