by BONNIE THOMAS
When I was asked to write this article on Mary Poppins, I thought, “sure thing–it will be a breeze.” Then the wind changed, and unlike the wind that brings delightful Mary Poppins, it brought Depression. As I struggle through it, I’ve done a lot of thinking about the motifs in the story, and like Madeline Trumble, who plays Mary in the upcoming production, what it means to be more like the famous nanny.
We all know, or think we know, Mary Poppins. But let’s examine this story, and her character, a little more closely. It’s set in interesting times. British women are being carried off in chains, demanding the vote. The Bank’s household of four needs a support staff of three: cook, maid and governess. And there’s an ongoing debate about what one does with one’s tuppence–feed the nameless hungry birds, invest in overseas railroads and watch your interest compound, or, as Mr. Banks seems to ultimately endorse, spend it on “paper and string” for a kite you make yourself.
Although it’s set in Edwardian England, the Mary Poppins character began in 1934 when P. L. Travers published the first of a successful children’s book series. Then in 1964 Disney made the classic film, with such songs as, ‘A Spoonful of Sugar’, ‘Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious’, ‘Chim Chim Cher-ee’ and ‘Let’s Go Fly a Kite’. The 2006 stage production which debuted in London added some new songs and lyrics. The Broadway version coming to Jacksonville has some new characters, as well.
But let’s talk about the best character, Mary, herself. After all, “it’s a jolly holiday with Mary. Happiness is blooming all around her.” In a brief phone interview with actress Madeline Trumble, I got a sense of how challenging it would be to portray someone “practically perfect in every way” even if they weren’t magic to boot. She admits she never foresaw herself in this role. “I always wanted to be Jane Banks, because I wanted Mary Poppins to be my nanny.” She elaborates, “As an actor, you like to find yourself in your characters. It’s tricky because she’s so far away from who I am as a human being. Everything she does is perfect and precise, and I’m incredibly clumsy and not well-spoken.” As much as I am a fan of humility, this seemed like a harsh self-condemnation. Ms. Trumble’s sweet, clear voice made my afternoon sun shine bright.
In listening to her describe the traveling show from a stop in New Orleans, I was filled with awe and jealousy, although it doesn’t sound like the life for everyone. “It’s fun touring, because you’re away from your home and family and forced almost to become a family,” says Trumble. And it’s a big family. The cast is 35 people plus 20 or so crewmembers. The children actors travel with their parents and don’t have to go to school. They all pile into a bus once a week bound for a new city. Although they do get days off to do what they want, they also often do two performances a day. It’s worth noting that Madeline chose to use some of her day off wandering in the French Quarter to talk to EU. Her bottom line was that it’s, “amazing to get to travel, working and doing what I love.”
“The story is all about family and finding what’s important in life after you’ve lost touch with it,” says Trumble. It had been a while since I’d seen this multi-generational classic, and rewatching it as an adult was enlivening. (Mary’s masterful friend-zoning of Burt is definitely something to see!) The themes of social responsibility (“Well Done, Sister Suffragette!”) and individual accountability and hard work that I missed as child (I was more attuned to the dancing penguins) ring true. I love Mary’s acknowledgement of practicality–yes, we must all take our medicine, and we must all clean up after ourselves–but we can find the whimsy and fun in it. When we have done that, it becomes a game. While Mary Poppins won’t cure what ails you, it will help you remember your priorities and remove some of their drudgery.
Performances begin at the Times-Union Center’s Moran Theater on Tuesday, January 22 through Sunday, the 27th. Opening night is also Family Night on Broadway. Buy an adult ticket and get a free child entry. There will be pre-show activities in the lobby an hour before the curtain. The show starts at 7:30 pm on the 22, 23 and 24th, 8 pm on Friday the 25th, 2 pm and 8 pm on Saturday the 26th, and at 1:30 pm and 7 pm on Sunday the 27th.
by BONNIE THOMAS