TheaterTheater Interview

Behind the Scenes with ‘Mary Poppins’ at the Public Theater

The Disney and Cameron Macintosh musical Mary Poppins raises the curtain on the Public Theater of San Antonio’s 2019/2020 season and, according to the talent involved, it’s going to be a big one.

This past Thursday, ArtScene SA paid a visit to the Public during rehearsal and got a chance to talk with George Green, the Public’s CEO and Artistic Director, Courtnie Mercer, its resident choreographer, Hadley Rouse (Mary Poppins) and Chaz Ingraham (Bert). They provided their insights about taking on such a large-scale musical, filling these iconic roles, staging massive dance numbers — and the fun of flying!

Hadley Rouse Mary Poppins

ArtScene SA: Is this your first time playing the role?

Hadley Rouse: No, I played it before about five years ago in my hometown of Owensboro, Kentucky. It was a community theater production, and it was so much fun. When this was offered to me, I said, “I would love to do this again!” It’s been fun revisiting it now that I’m a bit older and have a bit more life experience. It’s been very different.

ArtScene: Is this your first time at the Public?

HR: It is. It’s been so much fun so far. I’ve got family in Texas, so when this was offered to me, I thought, “Well, this is perfect. I can visit my family and spend time in an amazing town like San Antonio, and also work for an amazing company like this!”

Artscene: How does it feel to play a legendary character like Mary Poppins?

HR: There is some pressure that comes from that, because people have an expectation of what the role is supposed to be like when they go into the theater. It’s also fun, because it’s very different from the movie. You can bring your own spin to it. There are new numbers and new scenes. It’s a combination of the book series and the movie.

I just stay away from watching the movie, because you don’t want to do an imitation.

ArtScene: What you pointed out is very true. The kids are a little naughtier, and the focus is more on the father having grown up neglected.

HR: Exactly. It’s definitely George’s story and his journey instead of Mary’s story. She’s the vehicle that the story gets told through. Whenever I start feeling pressure, I remind myself that it’s more about him than me.

ArtScene: What are your favorite songs?

HR: My two favorites are definitely “Feed the Birds” and “Let’s Go Fly a Kite.” I think they’re beautiful melodies and beautiful harmonies, and the meaning behind them is also beautiful. This character, Mary Poppins, takes these seemingly simple, everyday things like feeding a bird or flying a kite and transforms them into these magical moments that provide huge life lessons, too.

ArtScene: How’s the production shaping up?

HR: It’s going to be fantastic. There’s so much stage magic going on — and flying. One of the big challenges is that all of the songs are huge ensemble numbers. Not many musicals have such big numbers, so it’s been really fun.

Chaz Ingraham — Bert
Chaz Ingraham as Bert (Siggi Ragnar).

ArtScene: Is this your first time playing Bert? How are you enjoying inhabiting such an iconic character?

Chaz Ingraham: It is, and it’s been awesome. I’d been wanting to play this role as long as I’d been seeing it, which was from the movie. But once it became a musical, I thought, “Well that’s a pipe dream right there. I have to be in that show.”

ArtScene: What’s different about this Bert versus the movie?

CI: We’re playing Mary and Bert as even more magical beings. They’re also more guardian angel-esque, where they’re actually watching events from above, especially Bert and the chimney sweeps.

ArtScene: How has production been going?

CI: Oh, my gosh! There’s so many on that stage. I think this one is even bigger than Newsies was last year. I couldn’t believe it when I came in and saw how many people were here that first day. I wondered, “How are we going to get all those people on the stage? And how are we going to get all the sets onstage?”

But they’ve all been extremely professional — the kids, too. They’ve been really great.

ArtScene: What makes Mary Poppins so enduring?

CI: I think it’s the family angle. Even people who don’t really like musical theater will still like this show, because it’s iconic. But when they actually go see it, the message they take away from it is “Never take your family for granted.” Find time to give, and find time to be present in your friends’ and family’s lives. When you leave this musical, you feel better about yourself and want to try to be a better person.

ArtScene: And what are your favorite songs?

CI: My favorite is “Feed the Birds.” It’s the most brilliantly written, musically. There’s just something about that number that’s so actually musical that I love the most.

ArtScene: Mary flies. Do you fly?

CI: I do! I’m the only one who actually inverts as well. She and I have 360 degree harnesses. Everyone else’s harnesses just pick them up and they stay forward and get dropped down. Hers goes side to side and spins. Mine goes side to side, spins and inverts. It’s made things quite interesting. That’s the other box I wanted to check off my whole life — to actually be able to fly in a musical.

You watch professionals do it, and it looks like they have so much control, but when you’re up there you have absolutely none. You’ve got a crew of two or three guys on the ground who put you everywhere you need to be. There’s this trust you have to have, because it’s four people trying to be one. The timing is paramount — but so much fun.

Courtnie Mercer — Choreographer
Choreographer Courtnie Mercer.

ArtScene SA: So how big is the show?

Courtnie Mercer: It’s huge. Between dance numbers and costumes and flying — and as many cast members we have. I thought Matilda was really big, but Mary Poppins is on a different level.

ArtScene: How many people are you choreographing?

CM: 32 (laughs). We’ve got nine kids and the rest are adults. The dance numbers are huge. “Jolly Holiday” is a ten-minute-long dance.

ArtScene: Oh, yeah. There’s that interlude that goes on and on.

CM: That’s right! On and on… But we have a lot of new faces at the Public Theater this season, which is really neat. A whole new crop of people to get to know and to get to know their abilities.

ArtScene: This is Hadley’s first show here, right?

CM: Yes, she’s here from New York, and Chaz is back for show number four, I believe.

ArtScene: Do any of the numbers you’re choreographing incorporate special effects like flying? How do you do that?

CM: Yes. Very carefully! “Step in Time” incorporates flying. Bert taps the whole beginning of the song, and then he climbs up to a rooftop and flies over the chimney sweeps, and then ends up dancing while flying in the air. I’ve never choreographed flying into a song before, so that was a new one for me. George has done this show before, so he was able to help with the flight choreography.

ArtScene: What was most challenging about the choreography?

CM: It was interesting, because most shows tell you can’t use the original Broadway choreography. This show is the same way, except for one number. All of the choreography is 100 percent mine except for “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.” For that one, you have to use the Broadway choreography. That was the most challenging for me. To have to learn the piece and then teach it. That’s a lot of pressure! To make sure it’s clean and that it looks similar. It’s a different kind of pressure. That was the most fun, though. They’re spelling supercalifragilisticexpialidocious with their bodies using hand motions, with their legs, or jumping.

ArtScene: When you’re doing your own choreography for a show, how do you approach it when you work on an established, familiar piece?

CM: I do a lot of research. I like to research other productions to see what people have done; to see what worked and what didn’t. Then I add my own spin to it. I research what other choreographers did before. I research YouTube videos and study different moves from that time period, and then I incorporate all of it to make it my own.

George Green — Director
George Green, CEO and Artistic Director of The Public Theater of San Antonio (Daniel Baumer).

ArtScene: There are differences between the 1965 movie and the musical, right? The focuses are different.

GG: Very. The musical goes further into the books. There’s the series of eight books that P.L. Travers wrote. Anytime you try to take literature and adapt the page for the stage, it’s a very large challenge. I think it’s fun what Cameron Macintosh did. He found little snippets of magic and what I call some of the darker moments in the book. He plugged them in just to have that homage to the original story. If you read the books, they’re quite dark.

ArtScene: Yes, Mary Poppins is much more of a stern taskmaster.

GG: I joke a lot, but I mean…she’s a witch! She’s a nice witch, but for anyone who grew up watching Bewitched, that’s who she is! There’s even a point in the play where she has the toys turn on the children to teach them a lesson. That’s a dark, dark moment. I think it’s pretty cool to see some of those things from the book that the movie skipped over to keep it joyful and delightful the entire time.

Make no mistake about it. It’s still Mary Poppins, and it’s still a vibrant, fun show.

ArtScene: How’s the cast?

GG: Huge! There are a lot of people on the stage; a great mix of vocalists and dancers. That’s what this show needs to make it happen. The dancing can be pretty basic or — if you have the talent as we do — you can do some really extravagant dance numbers. You can only do that if you have great dancers and people who can sing while dancing at the same time.

ArtScene: And you have guests from Ballet San Antonio.

GG: That’s right. We have Alex and Sierra from Ballet San Antonio, who is also a partner on the show. We’re in it together — it’s a co-production.

ArtScene: I’ve been seeing full houses every time I come to the Public. How are things going?

GG: Great! We continue to see a percentage increase in the shows, and the more we can do that, the more shows we’ll add. This production has two Education Nights set aside for it. Typically, we set aside one for a run. This has two; Newsies had two, and that’s a good sign. There are lots of young folks and educators who get their students out to see the shows and be exposed to quality theater. That’s a step in the right direction.

ArtScene: So is the Public helping to increase theater’s foothold in San Antonio?

GG: That’s one of our biggest objectives, of course. That’s why we moved in the direction of the professional, equity theater. To teach the quality of the craft and, hopefully, to raise the bar in San Antonio. I think there are lots of theaters that do that, and I’m very proud of the work we do here.

Mary Poppins opens Sept. 13, playing Thursday through Saturday at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday at 2:00 p.m. through Oct. 13 at the Public Theater of San Antonio, 800 West Ashby Place. Reservations can be made online or by calling (210) 733-7258.

Feature photo: Hadley Rouse as Mary Poppins (Siggi Ragnar).

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