News Column

Theater: 'Mary Poppins' lands at Music Circus

July 7, 2014

By Marcus Crowder, The Sacramento Bee

July 07--California Musical Theatre artistic director Glenn Casale would probably be a great mathematician or an excellent puzzle maker. He enjoys creating problems to solve and dislikes doing the same thing twice.

For the new Music Circus production of "Mary Poppins," which opens Tuesday at the Wells Fargo Pavilion, Casale has chosen an interesting challenge. The production has a fair amount of special effects and "magic" that's difficult to pull off in the "round" theater where there's no place to hide how it's done.

"This show is making me so creative," Casale said during a recent rehearsal break. "My head is aching trying to figure new things out that I haven't dealt with before."

The director had been working with on a scene that includes the mysterious powers Mary Poppins sometimes exhibits. In this case, another character falls under her powers and drops a vase, which breaks. It's a tricky sequence to stage in the round at the Wells Fargo Pavilion because half of the people are always behind the action.

"I've always got to figure out how the whole 2,200 people can see that moment," Casale said. "What it is and what changes in it."

Casale takes great care with details big and small, knowing the clearer the story points are, the stronger the emotional impact will be on audiences. He also knows extra eyes will be on "Poppins" because it's a Disney property. He's cultivated a strong working relationship with the entertainment conglomerate, directing shows such as "Beauty and the Beast" and "The Little Mermaid" for the company across Europe and Asia.

"I got ... an email from (Disney) saying 'We hope we're going to see the "Mary Poppins" we know and love when we come to your theater,' " Casale said. "That was their little way of saying 'We trust you, but we don't want you screwing around with it too much.' "

Casale does have some leeway, though, when tweaking theatrical properties for specific spaces and audiences. He oversaw creative improvements for "The Little Mermaid," which had the shortest Broadway run in history of any Disney show (not including the debacle "Tarzan"). Casale's ideas, which included simplifying plot lines in the first act and adding a new song in the second, were first tested in public for Music Circus audiences in 2012.

"They were happy with those changes and that's how it's being done now," Casale said.

Casale came to "Mary Poppins" with an abiding admiration for the property, adapted from P.L. Travers' books about a magical English nanny blown in by a strong wind to care for the Banks family's children.

" 'Mary Poppins' has always interested me because I love the music, I love the movie and when I saw it on Broadway it intrigued me," Casale explained. "I thought it would adapt very nicely to the round."

Casale added that he thinks the recent film "Saving Mr. Banks" with Emma Thompson as Travers and Tom Hanks as Walt Disney has given the "Poppins" story more depth and complexity.

When he began looking at staging the musical, Casale didn't necessarily think he could make it better. "I thought it was fine," he said, but came to believe that shorter could be stronger.

"For me, the first act is a little long, almost an hour and half for a kids show," Casale said.

He also thought the song-and-production-number "Playing the Game" didn't work.

"(In that sequence), you had Mary Poppins teaching the kids that if they're not good to their toys, the toys will come alive and scare them," he explained. "But then (evil nanny) Miss Andrew comes in at the top of Act Two, and if you've already done the scary thing, what are you going to do?"

Disney allowed Casale to cut "Playing the Game," and he's happy with the tighter version of the play. "It gets us to the end of the first act cleaner," he said.

Casale also wanted a warmer Mary Poppins than he's seen in the past. Finding the actress with the right qualities to portray that disposition took some doing. He auditioned more than 30 women in New York and Los Angeles, but most were committed to the more severe Poppins usually seen in the musical.

"What I was looking for was somebody who has a sense of magic in their being," Casale said."There's spirituality. There's a sense of something that's out of this world."

Eventually Casale found that in Kelly McCormick, who has considerable regional theater credits and has appeared in the national touring productions of "Les MisÉrables" and "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang."

"Kelly has these lovely eyes, and she has a sense about her that even when she's strong, even when she's demanding with the kids, there's this warmth that comes through," Casale said. "She is there to help this family."

The family is bolstered by young local actors Noa Solorio and Ben Ainley-Zoll, who play children Jane and Michael Banks.

"These kids are better than any kids I could have found around the country," Casale said. "They're so professional. They've been here eight hours a day, doing every job every actor does, and these are local kids and I forget that."

The two have been rehearsing their parts since March and have had a dialogue coach helping their English accents. They've worked at Music Circus before with Casale in the chorus of "The Music Man," but now they are featured actors.

"They've got to hold this show together and I can't say enough about how prepared they are," he said.



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