News Column

Muny magic: Flying Mary Poppins will require a new trick

July 19, 2013


July 19--When the world's most famous nanny comes to the Muny -- complete with umbrella, spoonsful of sugar and child-rearing techniques guaranteed to baffle Dr. Spock -- she will perform her most spectacular feat: She will fly.

She will fly right over the audience.

If you have seen "Mary Poppins" before -- on tour at the Fox or at other indoor theaters -- you know that she's supposed to do that.

But you may have wondered how that would be possible at a theater that has no ceiling.

You know she doesn't actually fly, right? The actress who plays Mary Poppins -- that's Jenny Powers, this time out -- must be safely attached to a wiring system that creates the illusion of flight.

If there is a ceiling, as there is in most theaters, it's not so hard to understand. In an open-air theater like the Muny, it's also pretty easy to understand how an actress might fly over the stage itself, the way that a number of them have since the Muny first produced "Peter Pan" 57 years ago.

To tell the truth, Mike Isaacson wasn't sure it was possible, either.

The Muny's executive producer, Isaacson figured that "Mary Poppins" was an ideal choice for the children's show this season. Like most Muny children's shows, it runs for a few extra days, starting on Thursday. (That means no subscription seats are committed for the last four performances, opening up extra seats, including many that aren't usually available.)

A recent hit on Broadway and in London, the show combines the charm of a beloved series of children's books by P.L. Travers with songs from the Disney movie and Cameron Mackintosh's lavish theatrical aesthetic -- and the Muny had never staged it before.

But what is Mary Poppins' signal accomplishment? You already know: flight.

And in 95 years, nobody had ever flown over the Muny audience.

They've done lots of other things, of course, at the largest outdoor theater in America. The Muny stage is 90 feet deep and 110 feet wide; the house has 10,779 seats; the Muny's Forest Park "footprint" covers more than 6 acres.

These are not the kinds of numbers that routinely come up when discussing theatrical venues. That's why, over the years, the theater has regularly pushed the envelope, making big, eye-popping effects a signature touch, often called "Muny moments."

Elephants and camels have crossed the Muny stage. Methods of transportation including hot-air balloons, horses, helicopters, trolleys and horse-drawn coaches have carried actors to exciting new destinations, right in the middle of their shows. Water has cascaded from eaves, as if it were raining (and someone were singing in it), and from a detailed model of Rome's famed Trevi Fountain.

The stage has accommodated everything from a full-size swimming pool to a basketball court to the army of fictional Ruritania; it called for a chorus that numbered in the dozens, not all that unusual at the Muny. The orchestra varies in size, depending on the show, but 30-plus isn't unusual.

In 1930, a revolving 48-foot turntable -- at that time the largest in the country -- was installed under the stage to make scene changes dramatically faster. Years later, it was computerized, and it still works. ?

? Last year, a big LED screen was added at the back of the stage to create the latest in scene-setting effects. With 185 trillion possible color combinations, it can depict anything, from a tropical sunset to a glittering New York skyline -- and can change in the blink of an eye.

At the Muny, the theater itself makes you think in those big terms.

"Part of it is the open air; part of it is history," Isaacson says. "But big acts of imagination have more power here than in a regular theater. And when you have a lot of kids in the audience, it's even more important."

Production manager Tracy Utzmyers understood the "Mary Poppins" problem. A veteran of many Muny shows, she was on hand for previous challenges in "Peter Pan" and "The Wizard of Oz."

"The hard thing was, there is no structure to hook into for a flight line," she explains, comparing the flight gear to a clothesline. If there is too much weight, the clothes on the line will sag or fall. That's not an option when the "clothes" are a human being.

"In flying, you have 7,200 pounds of pressure on a single point in the middle of nowhere," Utzmyers says. "So the trick is figuring out what can withstand that amount of pressure."

Utzmyers figured it out. She found two strong spots -- one backstage and one to the side of the audience -- to be the "anchors."

ZFX, a top firm in theatrical flying effects, was brought in to make sure that the stunt would look terrific and that Powers would be safe.

Isaacson says that although it might be possible to stage the musical version of "Mary Poppins" without flying, he wouldn't want to see it that way -- at least, not at the Muny.

Who knows? One day, some of the kids in the audience may work in the theater.

"In this audience and in this community," he says, "you never know whom you will inspire."

What "Mary Poppins" --When 8:15 p.m. Thursday-Aug. 3 --Where The Muny in Forest Park --How much $12-$80, plus the free seats --More info 314-534-1111;


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