Lindsey Bliven jokes that if you think it’s hard to sing “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious,” as she does in the title role of “Mary Poppins: The Broadway Musical,” which opens Friday for Music Theatre of Wichita, you should try dashing through it backwards.
Oh, sure, Bliven says, Julie Andrews did it easily enough in the classic 1964 Disney movie that has become a beloved touchstone for several generations. But Andrews did it by the syllable, not by the letter, Bliven says.
“It’s a lot more of a challenge by the letter. It took me a long time to get it and not trip over my tongue. You can’t just read it, you have to find the rhythm and keep practicing it,” she says, demonstrating her fluency and sounding like a record running backwards.
Fortunately, she’s had 1½ years with the national touring production of “Mary Poppins,” understudying the role and performing it 32 times. The MTW production is a regional premiere and will be one of only eight – in the world, not just the U.S. – approved by Disney and original producer Cameron MacIntosh for this year. And MTW’s Wayne Bryan, who is directing, is absolutely delighted.
“In an earlier era, we could never have dreamed of doing such a show so early,” Bryan says of the musical that just closed on Broadway in March after a six-year run and more than 2,600 performances. “But Disney liked what we did with ‘Beauty and the Beast’ and opened their other shows, like ‘The Little Mermaid,’ to us early. We even got the rights (to ‘Mary Poppins’) before the show actually closed.”
The musical, which Bryan describes as a “happy combination” of familiar elements of the movie and some surprises resurrected from the original P.L. Travers books from the 1930s about a magical nanny who heals dysfunctional families with her no-nonsense practicality and wisdom, caps MTW’s 42nd season – and Bryan’s 26th, now as producing artistic director.
Because of the intense audience interest, the show will be given 12 performances rather than the usual seven, and rules will be relaxed to allow children as young as 3 and 4 to be welcome at the Aug. 17 matinee. At all other performances, children must be 5 to attend, as usual.
The stage musical, which was nominated for seven Tony Awards on Broadway and nine Olivier Awards in London, combines music from the Oscar-winning Sherman Brothers (Richard and Robert) like “Chim Chim Cher-ee,” “Jolly Holiday” and “A Spoonful of Sugar” with new songs by the British team behind “Honk!” and “Betty Blue Eyes”: composer George Stiles and lyricist Anthony Drewe.
“The two elements are woven together seamlessly,” says MTW music director Thomas W. Douglas, who will conduct a 16-piece orchestra. “They seem like they are all from the same original score. Some of the old songs have been refreshed with new lyrics and given new arrangements. I grew up with the movie as a kid, and these new elements are a delightful discovery that puts it all together.”
But for people who know only the Disney movie and not the original books, there are notable differences for the stage, including setting it in the Victorian era at the turn of the century rather than the later Edwardian era of the movie. The stage version also places more emphasis on the children misbehaving and the parents being dysfunctional, making them even needier of Mary’s help.
And a couple of the original book characters dropped from the movie have been restored, including Mrs. Corry, an enigmatic shopkeeper who sells sweets and words (like “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious”) and a park statue that comes to dancing life.
Playing Mary Poppins is Bliven, a Tennessee native and University of Oklahoma graduate who was part of the MTW resident company in 2008. Now based in New York, she has toured the United States, Canada and Japan in such shows as “The Wizard of Oz,” “A Chorus Line” and “Oklahoma!” as well as her recent run with “Mary Poppins.” Interestingly, her parents moved to Wichita two years ago, joining her grandmother as a local support system.
“I see Mary as a magical person, an angel, but one who is very relatable,” Bliven said. “Some think she is a bit snippy, but she is just very direct and forthright. She has a lot to do and everything she says, she means. She is a wise old sage who loves children.”
In preparing for the role, Bliven says she imagined Mary as a child and then as a fledgling nanny who discovered her calling to mend broken families. When she did that, she settled into being a timeless, ageless spirit who is an inspiration to all around her.
“I know that when I’m playing Mary, I feel like I’m flying, that I can accomplish anything. I feel I can really tell her story,” says Bliven, who loves to meet with children from the audience after a performance. “I feel unstoppable.”
Playing Bert, a happy-go-lucky jack-of-all-trades who acts as narrator for the stage version, is David Elder, best remembered for his show-stopping splashy tapping in last season’s “Singin’ in the Rain.”
“Bert is a pure soul who was once told to learn a trade, so he learned all of ’em. In the show, we see him as a barrel organ player and street artist as well as a chimney sweep,” said Elder, who has been on Broadway in such shows as “Curtains,” “42nd Street” and “Disney’s Beauty and the Beast” and crossed the country in national tours of “White Christmas” and “Damn Yankees” (opposite Jerry Lewis as the devil).
“One thing I’m still trying to figure out about Bert is whether he’s magical like Mary. He’s sort of like a guardian angel. But where she’s pricklier, he’s more easy-going. They have a long history together. He knows her so well he can interpret her to others because she never explains herself,” Elder said.
The family that Mary Poppins arrives to put right is headed by Damon Kirsche as George Banks, a no-nonsense banker who lets his work get in the way of his family, and Claire Gerig as his wife, Winifred, a former actress who gave up her career for marriage and children and now feels unfulfilled.
Playing their children, Michael and Jane, are Edward Sturm and Londen Peebler. Katie Banks is Mrs. Brill, the family cook, and Elliott Mattox is Robertson Ay, the family handyman.
“Mr. Banks is the most damaged character in the story, and we find out that it all stems from his experiences with his old nanny, who was known as ‘The Holy Terror,’” says Kirsche, who played Galahad in this season’s opener, “Monty Python’s Spamalot,” as well as King Arthur in “Camelot” and Henry Higgins in “My Fair Lady” in previous seasons.
“He has to rethink his childhood and recall his long-lost sense of possibility in order to relate to his son. I admire that he carries the weight of responsibility for providing for his family. That is a noble aspect of his character,” Kirsche says. “But it’s inspiring when he gets to the point where he realizes he can change to connect with his children.”
For her part, Gerig says she admires that Mrs. Banks is a loyal person who never gives up in her quest to find the eager young George she first fell in love with inside the harried businessman he has become.
“She fell in love and left the stage to settle down. But as her husband became more absorbed in his work, she began to lose touch with him. He thought it would be enough for her doing charity work or entertaining society,” says Gerig, a Wichita native and senior theater major at Wichita State University who made her MTW debut earlier this season in “Les Miserables.”
“But she has a mind of her own and she wants to find if her old George is still there somewhere.”
The set, designed by longtime MTW collaborator J Branson from Chicago, will have the delicate line-drawing style of 1880-1910 illustrations. Lighting is by David Neville and sound is by David Muehl. Period Victorian costumes – corsets and all – are by George T. Mitchell (costumer for late-night TV host Craig Ferguson). And choreography for the 62-member cast is by Linda Goodrich (MTW’s “Singin’ in the Rain,” “The Music Man,” “West Side Story”).