Akron School for the Arts is one of first to produce ‘Mary Poppins’ musical

By Kerry Clawson
Beacon Journal staff writer

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Abby Riley as Mary Poppins floats onto the stage with her umbrella at rehearsal for "Mary Poppins,The Musical" at Firestone High School in Akron. (Michael Chritton/Akron Beacon Journal)

The rooftops are built and the rigs are at the ready for Mary Poppins and Bert to fly over London tonight through Saturday at Firestone High School.

Of course, the no-nonsense Poppins, played by junior Abigail Riley, will be nonplussed by her own aerial feats but the irrepressible Bert, played by senior Brandon Kline, will be flipping for joy above the stage as a bevy of chimney sweeps Step in Time.

The Akron School for the Arts is one of six schools nationwide selected by Disney Theatricals to present Mary Poppins as a pilot production. That means the school will provide the musical’s creators with feedback that will help them fine-tune the script and support materials for future school productions.

The timing is Practically Perfect for the regional release of this musical, considering this year is the 50th anniversary of the beloved Mary Poppins film starring Julie Andrews. The live musical version, which originated in London’s West End in 2004, ran for more than six years on Broadway, closing last March. The musical, which won a Tony Award for best scenic design by Bob Crowley, ran 2,619 performances.

Director Mark Zimmerman has been gunning for his school to do the show for two years, ever since he attended an International Thespian Society conference in Lincoln, Neb., where Tom Schumacher, president of Disney Theatrical Group, spoke.

Zimmerman asked him during a question-and-answer session how soon Mary Poppins would be available and Schumacher said, “Sooner than you think.’’

“Then I was consumed by it, like ‘what does that mean? What does that mean?’ ” Zimmerman said.

The School for the Arts got the rights to the show last April.

“The reason I’m honored to do it is it’s just a recognition of the good work that we do,’’ said Zimmerman, who will fill out a detailed questionnaire after the show is over to give Disney feedback. That will help the show’s creators decide how to revise the script and score and possibly lead to a packet of problem-solving tips for school productions.

Zimmerman, who saw the show in London with a student group years ago, knew then he wanted to produce Mary Poppins at Firestone at the earliest time possible.

“It was really the best Broadway-style musical that I’d ever seen: It was just so much fun from beginning to end and so well done,’’ he said.

Other schools that will produce the show are Bradford High School in Kenosha, Wis., and Bowling Green Senior High School in Ohio in April; followed by Dos Pueblos High School in Goleta, Calif., Archbishop Stepinak in White Plains, N.Y., and Governors School for the Arts in Virginia Beach, Va., in May.

The show also has had a soft release to professional companies and community theaters throughout the country. Firestone has borrowed some props from the Erie Playhouse in Pennsylvania, including a trick doll house, trick organ grinder and a dog puppet.

The Akron School for the Arts has figured out other tricks on its own and has brought in ZFX, the company that does the flying for Wicked, to make Mary and Bert fly.

At a recent rehearsal, both kites and actors were flying, with Kline executing impressive aerial acrobatics above the set’s London rooftops. He was like the Pied Piper leading a bevy of chimney sweeps through Step in Time, which also includes a cool tap-dancing sequence.

In this 1910 story about the dysfunctional Banks family, magical nanny Mary Poppins appears to sort things out. Children Jane and Michael (senior Shea Lee and King Elementary second-grader Stanley Niekamp) are naughty and their parents, George and Winifred (junior Brian Hirsch and senior Shelby Namsick) have trouble both connecting with each other and controlling their children, who have gone through a succession of nannies.

The musical, based on the children’s books by P.L. Travers, includes songs by Robert and Richard Sherman from the Disney film as well as new ones by George Stiles, with additional lyrics by Anthony Drewe. The musical’s book is by Julian Fellowes.

“You’d be hard-pressed to tell between the original music and what’s new,’’ Zimmerman said of the music’s seamlessness.

At Firestone, the show includes a cast of 49 as well as an 18-member student orchestra, led by assistant band director Bernie Williams. Sally Schneider is vocal director, Julie Lehman is rehearsal accompanist and vocal coach, and Marissa Montigney is the choreographer. Elynmarie Kazle is production manager, Connie Hecker is scenic designer, Greg Poccolo is lighting designer and Randie Sass is costume designer. Sophomore DJ Jenkins is stage manager, assisted by freshman Theresa Stafford; and seniors Ashton Blake and Charles Worthy are sound designers.

Shows are at 7 tonight, 7:30 p.m. Thursday-Saturday and 2:30 p.m. Saturday. Tickets are $10 in advance or $12 at the door, open seating. Reserved seats are $15. Reservations are available at www.brownpapertickets.com. For more information, call 330-873-3408 or see www.firestonetheatre.com.

Arts writer Kerry Clawson may be reached at 330-996-3527 or kclawson@thebeaconjournal.com.

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