Finding the magical in the mundane: ALSCT brings ‘Mary Poppins’ to Bowker stage

Last modified: Thursday, February 25, 2016

More than 80 years after P.L. Travers published her first book about Mary Poppins, the magical nanny blown by easterly winds to the Banks family’s home in London, will breeze into Amherst for a musical stage version of her story.

The show, presented by Amherst Leisure Services Community Theater, will run Jan. 14 through Jan. 24 at the University of Massachusetts Amherst’s Bowker Auditorium.

The production, which was on Broadway from 2006 to 2013, is a mixture of the 1964 Disney musical film, starring Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke, which won a number of Golden Globes and Academy Awards (including best actress for Andrews) and Travers’ original books. It features the Sherman Brother’s classic compositions from the film, “A Spoon Full of Sugar,” “Chim Chim Cher-ee,” and “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious,” while adding new numbers to the mix, such as “Practically Perfect” and “A Man has Dreams.”

Spotlight on Mr. Banks

Fans of the Disney movie will spot significant differences in the stage play — ones that are in keeping with the original books written by Travers, says Alan Dallmann, who plays the chimney sweep Bert.

Travers famously rejected Disney’s adaptation of her stories, including the music, saying she had not signed off on some of Disney’s creative flourishes, like Mary’s gaggle of animated dancing penguins. In the books, Mary Poppins is presented as a harsher figure — still incredible, but without the humor and sweetness of Disney’s Mary.

“She’s not Cinderella, she’s not the fairy godmother or Maria from ‘The Sound of Music,’ ” Dallmann said. “She’s got an edge to her.”

Dallmann first saw “Mary Poppins” on stage in London 10 years ago with his son Brandon Dallmann, 16, who plays Nelius in the current production (a character from Travers’ books that didn’t make it into Disney’s movie). He said he had watched the Disney movie growing up, and was surprised at how different it is from the show. He was even more surprised that he didn’t mind at all.

“That really endeared me to the play,” he said.

“Mary Poppins” is not an easy show to put on. It has a lot of big ensemble numbers and requires a 58-person cast, 32 of whom are children. And the role of Mary requires a vocal range of two-and-a-half octaves. For ALSCT’s production, it went to Heather Williams of Amherst, who, with 20 years experience in musical theater, is a seasoned pro. Even so, she admits, she’s a bit apprehensive about playing such an iconic character.

“I’m trying not to think too much about how others will compare me to Julie Andrews, Laura Michelle Kelly [who played Mary in London] or Ashley Brown [who starred in the role on Broadway],” she said. “There is no comparison. It is intimidating, but I will do my best. ... I think each person playing a part brings their own unique touches to any role.”

While the play and the book are centered around Mary to a large extent, the story really isn’t about Mary Poppins says Kim Overtree of Northampton, the show’s director.

“It’s about the Banks family and George Banks, in particular, who has to snap out of this idea of what a banker is supposed to be and realize there are many ways to be a man and there are many ways to be a father,” Overtree said. “Mary is just the vehicle for finding what true family is.”

As Mr. Banks, played by Bill Miller of Amherst, becomes a more central character in the stage version, audiences will see a plot less about the children’s adventures with Mary, and more about Mr. Banks’ struggle between being a businessman and a father, Dallmann says.

Mr. Banks weighs the ethics of providing loans to good people in need or corrupted businessmen, and struggles to make time for his family. Over the course of the play, however, he learns that family comes first, and heals his relationships with his wife and kids.

“It’s a children’s story, but Mr. Banks is the one learning the biggest lesson,” said Williams, who plays Mary. “Mr. Banks’ lesson is to work beyond the bad things that happened in the past and try not to let them shape you. And if they have, someone will come along to help you find your way.”

The character of Mrs. Banks, played by Pam Plumer of Haydenville, is also more central in the stage production. At one point, she laments her decision to quit acting and get married. In the movie, she is portrayed as an enthusiastic suffragette, but in the play she is an overwhelmed housewife who has trouble advocating for herself.

“It’s a struggle to find a balance between her being a parent, a spouse and what society is expecting her to do and what she can give to the world around her,” Overtree said. Mrs. Banks’ solo, “Being Mrs. Banks,” was created for the stage musical to illustrate her internal conflicts.

In the end, Dallmann says, the stage production is darker, more raw and emotional than other “Mary Poppins” interpretations. “People will be sadder than they thought they would be at certain points.”

A community effort

Getting the play from page to stage has required a host of volunteers, organizers say, willing to work behind the scenes.

David Mullins of Amherst, the lead set builder, says the costume shop has some 35 volunteers sewing costumes, while in the set shop, workers have spent more than 1,200 hours creating each of the show’s eight sets, including the bank, the parlor and the children’s nursery in the Banks house. He says the number of volunteers will easily surpass 100.

“We have had 95 folks work on the set, 29 of whom have no family members in the cast and have put in 70 percent of the hours,” Mullins said. “It really is a very large community effort.”

Indeed, Dallmann adds, those efforts by townspeople reflects the true message of the show: the importance of community.

“As much of the magic and dancing is a big part of the show, the real message of the show is that it’s really important to be present in your family and your community.”

Overtree adds, “The idea behind this production has been to find the magical in the mundane — to discover the excitement within everyday life, and to notice the potential you have inside that you never really knew was there.”

To portray that sense of wonder, behind-the-scenes volunteers have been working with Overtree to produce some special effects, like when Mary flies — which will require Williams to be attached to a harness for a portion of the show.

“There is a wonderful coat being made for me with holes in it so I can be hooked up to the flying rigging. I’m looking forward to it — it’s a privilege to fly,” Williams said.

“I don’t want to give away too much,” Overtree added, “but I know there will be moments the audience will wonder, ‘How did they do that?’ ”

“Mary Poppins” will be performed Jan. 14, 15, 21, 22 and 23 at 7:30 p.m., and Jan. 16, 17, 23 and 24 at 1 p.m., at Bowker Auditorium at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Tickets for the Jan. 14 show, at 7:30 p.m., cost $12; $10 for children 10 and under. Tickets for all other dates cost $20; $16 for students and seniors; $10 for children 10 and under. To purchase tickets, visit or call 259-3065.


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