DAYTON — In the true spirit of the play’s namesake, you’re never too old — or too young — to try new tricks. That’s what cast members of the Liberty Theater’s adaptation of the Broadway musical “Mary Poppins” discovered leading up to the troupe’s annual fall production.
Tonight’s opening performance at 7 at the Liberty Theater is the result of many months of hard work. In fact, in the case of this show, it’s a result of many more months of hard work than usual.
A stop-in at a recent rehearsal shows just how much this group had to learn.
On a cheery, fall Saturday, as Dayton shop owners are busy redecorating for the holiday season, director Elizabeth Arebalos-Jagelski is at work reorganizing a bustling group of children and adults. It’s more like organizing a small army than conducting a practice for a small-town musical production.
Arebalos-Jagelski has done four directing gigs with the theater and she said this is by far the most demanding production she’s seen.
The number they’re practicing is “Chim Chim Chiree,” followed by a raucous chorus of “Step In Time.” The complicated number involves more than half of the 60-member cast using techniques that require Arebalos-Jagelski to make some concessions.
“It’s pre-recorded,” she said. She would have stuck to live piano accompaniment if it hadn’t been for the large amount of tappers filling up the small theater with sound. It was nearly impossible to hear the piano, so they are relying on the sound system to help them out.
And tappers? Yes, tappers. Aside from a few who have taken tap dance classes before, many people learned tap for the first time ever.
Arebalos-Jagelski called upon friend Darla Brownell-Tubbs, who is a tap dance instructor. Brownell-Tubbs lived in Dayton for 18 years and moved to Airway Heights seven years ago. She was able to break away from her school, Darla’s School of Dance, to return to Dayton, where she helped with many productions in the past. She was tasked with teaching the cast in four months what it would normally take most students two years to master.
One of those cast members is Walla Wallan Sean Calvert, who plays wise-cracking Bert. Calvert took tap lessons as far back as July to start preparing for the show and practiced often.
“Yeah, a lot,” Calvert said with a slow nod, perhaps remembering many nights running through the steps in his makeshift home tap dance studio. Calvert is an engineer at his day job and said learning to move fluidly, in the spirit of the great Dick Van Dyke, was a whole new experience.
“(Sean’s) dedication to this skill has amazed me,” Brownell-Tubbs wrote in an email. “These are not beginner steps.”
Amanda Calvert, Sean’s wife, said the play is requiring much of its volunteer cast, but it’s a welcome challenge.
Despite the many nights of Sean practicing alone, the play is a family affair for the Calverts. They also have two children in the cast, Claire and Ezra. Amanda is also in the play starring as Winifred Banks, a role she said is greatly expanded from the film.
“There’s quite a bit of difference in the story itself from the movie. People will be surprised,” Amanda said.
Arebalos-Jagelski said the script is the Broadway version of the show, which uses much of the classic music associated with the Walt Disney production, but there are also elements from the original stories written by P.L. Travers.
Of course, “Mary Poppins” wouldn’t be complete without — you guessed it — Mary Poppins. She’s played by Janine Wheeler of Walla Walla.
Some might recognize Wheeler from the August 2018 production of “9 to 5” at Gesa Powerhouse Theatre. Originally from Portland, Wheeler fell in love with the area while being in the Walla Walla Valley for that show and now she and her family call it home.
She’s primarily a vocalist, having performed a lot with bands, and she’s dabbled with musical productions. But this is her first lead role, and she said she had to pinch herself when she found out.
“First, I had to kind of get over my shock and awe that (director Arebalos-Jagelski) chose me, a stranger to her, to play this role that I’ve literally dreamed about playing for years. ... And then I thought, ‘OK, let’s start with an accent.’ I think maybe the next thing was, ‘Let’s start with the lipstick.’”
After the accent was down and the lipstick applied, Wheeler dusted off her tap shoes, so to speak. She and her twin daughters, Teresa and Simone, were some of the only cast members with tap experience.
“It’s been wonderful to be able to do a show that’s family friendly, that’s family inclusive,” Wheeler said. “And that’s something I’ve loved about this whole production is the amount of inclusivity across the board.”
Arebalos-Jagelski said that’s a very intentional sentiment with Liberty Theater productions. Families like the Calverts and the Wheelers can all feel included and contribute something to the team. The director seems to gush with pride as she talks about the people she gets to work with.
“Everyone’s welcome, and we’ll work with you,” Arebalos-Jagelski said. “Hey, nobody got cut, and that’s the gift of this place.”
She points out young Cindi Howard who is front and center as the group runs through “Chim Chim Chimeree” yet again.
“She’s amazing,” Arebalos-Jagelski said with a chuckle. Cindi is sharing the stage with people who are easily 60 years her senior, and they are all having to learn the same steps.
Patti Jo Amerien, who is the main choreographer for the show, points out the difficulties and delights of trying to move all 60 cast members through the small space for showstopper “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.”
“I taught them the Broadway choreography for this,” Amerien said.
“The steps they’re doing in ‘Supercal’ are the Broadway steps, which is a huge deal for them. ... I feel like this is a pivotal show for our theater, because people have really stepped it up a notch.”
One thing is for certain: The group is pulling out all the stops — and all the props — for what is certainly an ambitious undertaking. But they seem determined to bring the magic of the story to life.
Kites will fly above the audience, chimneys will be stomped on and Arebalos-Jagelski has a bit of a wry smile when talking about Mary “flying.”
She doesn’t want to spoil it, but she said Mary “will fly. ... In Liberty Theater fashion, she will fly.”