Q&A With the Cast of ‘Mary Poppins’

You know the story. Bratty kids, a disconnected father and a flying nanny who saves the day with a spoonful of sugar. But you’ve never seen it like this. 

The Arkansas Repertory Theatre‘s production of “Mary Poppins” opens March 4, but we couldn’t wait until then. We got to sit down with director Donna Drake, choreographer Rhonda Miller, our Bert, Brian Letendre, and Mary herself, Elizabeth DeRosa.

Find out all about what’s in store for audiences, as well as just what it is that makes Mary so special in the biggest show in the history of The Rep. For showtimes and tickets, click here.

 

Tell us a little about your background and your relationship with “Mary Poppins.”

Donna Drake: I’ve never held a job, I only know song and dance. That’s why they call it a play… It’s my first time here at The Rep. I came down in the fall to audition children and local people and it took me pretty much ten seconds to fall in love with this theater. The versatility of this theater so impresses me and they’re not afraid to try brand new projects that. I didn’t think I’d find it down south in Arkansas, but I’m very happy about it. 

Elizabeth DeRosa: I understudied the role on Broadway for three and a half years and performed in the ensemble eight shows a week, going on as Mary about 40 times. I think the bit of my history that’s worth sharing is that I did have to hold some jobs once I got to the city and one of them was often nanny. When I first moved to the city, I was with one family for two and a half years and then with another family for about nine months. They were both extraordinary experiences for me as a woman. It was ironic that I would play this role in both lives, there was something intrinsic about it that works. It was great because all of these children from my life came to see me play Mary, nieces, nephews, all of them. I really feel like Mary Poppins lives in me .

Brian Letendre: I moved into the city at 17 and never left. I did three Broadway shows back to back, the third being Mary Poppins. I originated the role of Neleus in the Broadway production, so my relationship with this show goes way back. Then I went to Chicago to help open the first national tour, then back to New York where I met and worked with Elizabeth, so our relationship goes way back as well. 

I got a little burned out and decided to leave the business. Later, I was sitting in the audience of an off-Broadway play and I was just crawling in my skin. It was a visceral reaction and I didn’t know what it was until I realized “I’m in a seat in the house. I’m not comfortable here.” And I really, really missed it. 

My second audition was with this group, so this is my first jump back into this world. I love that it’s Mary Poppins, and there was just something about the energy in the room. I came back for the second reading and who turns around but Elizabeth? I’m thrilled. Everything just feels right. Life is weird when you’re not doing what you’re supposed to do, and this is what I’m supposed to do. 

ED: The energy in the audition room in New York was palpable. It had a lot to do with Bob [Hupp] as well. He’s a very open person, so kind. I had an opportunity for another audition that my agent thought I should go for, but there was no way. I met Donna, Rhonda and Bob and I knew I had to come to The Rep. 

Rhonda Miller: I bring a sense of choreography to the table that is from both coasts. I worked in TV and film in LA and then decided to go back to my roots on the east coast and in musical theater. I met and worked with a lot of people, Donna and I just really hit it off and worked on a lot of projects. I feel like choreographically what I’m able to bring to The Rep for “Mary Poppins” is an amalgamation of both worlds, the film and the traditional Broadway style. It’s my first time to be here, too, and I’m really, really excited to be here. It just feels good. You feel like you can walk into this building and create. It feels like home. 

 

People don’t always realize that this isn’t the movie. The books, the movie, this show are all different. How does that come into play and what should people expect?

BL: Well, there won’t be any cartoon penguins. No, there are things like “I Love to Laugh” that aren’t in the stage version. Flying tables, flying people, it makes for a very dangerous thing to do. 

ED: From a technical standpoint, I think people should understand that when P.L. Travers, who wrote the Mary Poppins books, sold the character and story, she had a certain amount of say when they were creating the movie. However, Disney didn’t purchase theatrical or stage rights, so when they decided to make the show, Travers had enough stability to make demands. She required that new music be written and that it be written by British people. She also wanted some of the stories and lessons pulled more directly from the book. You’ll see statues come to life and Neleus and the evil nanny Miss Andrew, all from the book.

BL: I do feel like the heart of the movie and the heart of the musical are exactly the same, which is that there’s this family who’s in trouble and they need help. It’s important because everyone can relate to this in some way, shape or form. We all have these little angels who appear in our lives, maybe somebody that knocks you down so you don’t cross the street and then a bus flies by, something as small as that. It’s a family finding their footing with a little nudge from a flying nanny and a chimney sweep.

ED: The essence of the show hasn’t changed. 

 

So what kind of flavor does The Rep bring to this production?

DD: There are certain limitations we have to work with. The Rep does not have fly space. Mary Poppins flies, and she’s going to. We have to reimagine things. The Rep has been challenged with a bear of a show and they have said “bring it on.” They’re killing themselves to create all these magical things that have to happen. It’s huge for The Rep to do this show and not limit the process. They just say “we’ll figure it out” or “we’ll make it work” and they get creative. I love that about working here. 

 

To put this in perspective, “Memphis” was a big show, “Elf” was huge and “Mary Poppins” is just off the charts. Do you feel that?

DD: It’s very exciting. Throughout every department, it’s just this giant game of “what if.” Let’s pretend we have $6 million. How do we do it for $6 million and then how do we do it for 23 cents? That’s the fun part, all these brains coming in. They’re bending over backwards to make things work, literally. They’re crawling into set pieces to make them move across the stage or magically appear. What this woman carries in her purse is ridiculous!

BL: It’s exciting as an actor because you come in and you don’t find out anything about the sets until you start staging the show. Right now we just hear “So you’re on a roof, but it’s going to turn, so you need to turn with it.” Every single time you hear something different and the imagination behind it, you get excited. You’re nothing but pleasantly surprised. 

DD: When these guys rehearse, all they have are pieces of tape on the floor. 

RM: And it’s all within a certain style. That’s the fun challenge of choreography. In theater, you always have to stay within the style of the music. “Jolly Holiday” has a completely different feel than “Fly a Kite.” You have to design the choreography so that it fits both the song and the show. Maybe throw in a little Beyoncé just right in the middle. 

 

You touched on the heart of the show earlier. People are already in love with this story whether they’ve seen the show or not. What do you think makes it so special that people keep coming back to it after all this time?

ED: It’s true. Everybody knows it. The photographer who took our pictures for the show (John David Pittman) has a little girl. She saw a photo of me and said, “Daddy, it’s Mary Poppins.” She’s never seen the movie, they’ve never talked about it, but of course they watched it after that. But the story just kind of lives on this level. I feel so much responsibility to tell the story well.

DD: In my telling of this story, I approached it as one for parents. You have to be careful what you say to your children, that you don’t close your heart. Children will take all of that forward into their own lives. I think George Banks was hurt as a child. I think he grew up proper and unloved, so that’s what he gave his children. They’ve become unruly and unkind. This is a broken family. 

When life humbles you and you start asking for help, it shows up in different forms, in a nanny. All these characters come to George to remind him how beautiful life is. That’s what this whole story is about, everybody remembering a return to love. Don’t forget to smell the roses because life is too precious and before you know it, your children have gone and you forgot to love them. 

There’s a marvelous psychology with this show and I don’t think it’s fluffy, happy-go-lucky Disney. I think there’s a huge human story in there. 

ED: It’s really special for people to come see the show as a family, for them to leave totally engaged in the show on their own level, maybe even forgetting they’re sitting with their kids because they’re so wrapped up in the story. They never expect it. Especially with the story we’re telling, they’re going to find something they identify with. 

The family goes through a beginning, a middle and an end. Mary and Bert don’t. Sometimes that’s difficult to play a character who shows up, is who she is, doesn’t change and then leaves. It’s the family that goes through this transformation. I love hearing adults, especially dads, talking as they leave the theater after this show. I think especially here, in an area of the country where family is so important, they’re going to eat it up. I’m excited for that. It’s going to be special here. 

BL: I think it will be hard for people to leave without some kind of lesson. Mary is sent in to help teach kids through games and songs. “Jolly Holiday” is about perspective. Is life a dreary park or is it a wonderland? All of those things are interwoven throughout and I can’t imagine sitting through the show and leaving without a little bit of that. 

ED: And maybe it’s not the same things for everybody. For me, it’s “Feed the Birds.” It’s one of the most beautiful songs ever written, in my opinion. It was Walt Disney’s favorite. He asked the Sherman brothers to play it for him every day to start the day. He saw that every creature, every being was important to the whole story, and not to miss that human behind the dirt or the begging. There’s a person there and she’s doing her portion, feeding the birds. We’re all connected so we’re all equal. 

DD: It’s life stuff wrapped in beautiful song and dance and design. It’s everybody’s story.

 

So what’s your favorite part of the show?

DD: It’s not a part, it’s the process. My favorite part? The audience doesn’t get to see that, I’m having it now. 

ED: This show has lived with me for so many years, that I do have a favorite part. It’s “Feed the Birds.” That’s the lesson that I need to be reminded of at times. Teaching that moment and being in that moment on the stage is my reminder each time I say it, that I overlook things and people and moments. 

BL: I have to agree that the process has been extraordinary with this show, being a part of creating the Broadway show, creating the first national tour and now creating this again. There’s a moment when your brain is spinning with so many things being thrown at you, but it just starts to fit. It’s like putting a round peg into a round hole. There’s a moment there and it just works, it’s just right. 

My favorite part of the show, even though I haven’t always played the character, is the scene between George and Bert after “Step in Time.” It’s Edwardian London, Bert is this low class guy, George is upperclass and they’re hanging around the parlor. And very, very gently, Bert is reaching out with a couple of words of wisdom humbly to George, and George actually starts to hear it. He shakes his hand, which would never happen. 

RM: For me, having seen the movie when I was so young, I think my favorite part now is being able to create “Step in Time.” It’s just fun. It’s challenging and I had such a time with this particular cast creating all the layers. That was exciting. I think being able to bring that burst of joy that’s a bit unexpected, that’s my fun part. But I do love “Feed the Birds.” It slays me down to my knees every time. 

 

We learned that six of the cast members have done “Mary Poppins” before whether on Broadway, regional theater or national tour. Why do you keep coming back?

BL: I feel like it keeps coming back to me. It just seems to keep finding me and I’m always thrilled. I keep accepting those offers because it’s always a chance to recreate it. That message that’s there, sometimes you forget it after you leave a show. It may have been great, but you remember that one crazy costume change or all that makeup. But a new production, day one your director brings you the message again, and it just wipes everything else away. It’s this magic you get to be a part of all over again. 

ED: It finds me, too. People want to see the show, theaters want to put it on. It keeps coming up and I’m more than happy to do it. Times before have been completely different. Opinion wise, how to tell the story and what’s important, Donna and I see eye to eye. I wasn’t sure if I was going to do it again, but then I met everyone at the audition and I just knew. There’s a reason I’m supposed to tell this story in Arkansas right now.  

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