The upcoming production of Mary Poppins: The Broadway Musical at John A. Coleman Catholic High School marks the 45th time that Lise Landis Hopson has directed a staged musical there. Add to that record the dozen or so musicals that she has done at the Kingston Catholic School – “junior” shows trimmed for the younger age group – and you could surmise one thing: This woman loves her job. “I’m a kid at heart,” she admits. “I’ve always enjoyed the energy and enthusiasm of kids. This is what makes it work.”
“Work” being the key word in that sentence, Hopson goes on to talk about what it takes to mount a staged musical with a cast of, say, 40 teenagers. “We work ridiculously hard. Every little measure has to be choreographed. These kids focus really hard. They have to know when to move, how to control the body, the mouth. We do all the choral rehearsals to learn the music first. They learn the eight-part harmony: Sitting in chairs, it’s easy; but onstage, moving this way and that…”
Scheduled for a six-performance run at Coleman, the musical based on P. L. Travers’ children’s books (and the now-classic Disney movie starring Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke) is a beloved staple in many a childhood memory. With such favorite singalongable tunes as “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” and “A Spoonful of Sugar” lodged in our brainpans, and images of proper English characters bursting into exuberant song and dance across the stage or screen, it’s intriguing to realize how the author treated what now might be called a mildly dysfunctional family scenario.
For those who don’t recall the plot: As the magic-making nanny literally descends into the lives of the troubled Banks family, her quirky mix of common sense and fanciful whimsy turns the household upside-down at first, and then she whips them all – distracted parents and recalcitrant kids – into shape, hopefully to live in some semblance of harmony, if not happily ever after. Travers pokes fun of our human foibles and gets us all to lighten up a bit – even to float away for a brief time.
The Theater Department at Coleman has become, over the years, a major part of the school’s identity. Hopson says that the dean attended a conference in Buffalo a few years back and was stopped when another administrator recognized “John A. Coleman Catholic High School” on his nametag; it’s the only high school in the state that produces two big musicals every year. “It’s a huge commitment for the students to be at school for up to 13 hours a day. And we are all consumed by rehearsals for the two weeks before opening night,” she says. “We have amazing support from parents and friends of the program, even ones who haven’t had kids in school here for years. For example, George Sullivan and Larry Omura have been building sets for us for as long as I’ve been here [25 years]. Their kids graduated more than a decade ago.”
Winner of 44 major theater awards around the globe, the musical has captivated audiences for many generations. Still, it was a triumph to get to do Mary Poppins here. Travers, who is said to have disliked the Disney production of her work, kept a tight fist on licensing rights. When they were finally released, Hopson “pounced on them the very day” it happened, making this production the first time that the show is being seen in the area.
Seniors Lily Page and Thomas Netter play the main characters, Mary Poppins and the irrepressible chimneysweep Bert. Both students have performed in Coleman shows since they were very young. Netter was 5 years old when he first flew over the Coleman stage, playing little Michael Darling in 2003’s Peter Pan, and Page was 10 when she played young Cosette in Les Miserables in 2008. (She has professional credits in film and regional theatre as well.) Now they, along with two more cast members, will be flying over the Coleman stage in Mary Poppins with the help of Flying by Foy, the prolific and widely respected theatrical flying service.
The roles of the two young Banks children are double-cast, with Emma Loewen and Evelyn Shannon as Jane and Mikey Moughan and Sean Mahoney as Michael. Juniors Mary Kate Barnett and Maria Koch share the role of Mrs. Banks; senior Tim Miner plays Mr. Banks. A total of 40 students make up the cast, while another 20 students work behind the scenes on the stage, lighting and sound crews. Pianist Liz Toleno provides the accompaniment. Set design is by Deb Ressa, and Kim-Denise Barnett heads up the costume crew. Rick Tarcza delivers the sound, and a host of energetic Coleman volunteers manage props, advertising, lighting, set construction and decoration.
In addition to holding multiple positions as Coleman’s music teacher, chorus conductor and theater director, Hopson has served as soloist and choir director at St. Peter’s Church in Rosendale for 29 years. A dedicated teacher, she’s intimately involved with the Broadway Bound theatre program for young people ages 7 to 16 on Saturdays at Coleman, with two weeklong workshops in late June and early July. She also directs the Dutchess Community College Summer Performing Arts Institute for kids and teens in Poughkeepsie for four weeks each summer. A professional actress, singer and dancer, Hopson has performed in musicals, plays and operettas Off-Broadway, in regional theatre, summer stock and on TV.
Some of Coleman’s past shows include Les Misérables and The Phantom of the Opera. (Watch for word of The Little Mermaid in May.)
“These kids work hard and should be proud of their accomplishments,” says Hopson.
Mary Poppins: The Broadway Musical, Friday/Saturday, March 20/21, 27/28, 7:30 p.m., Sunday, March 22, 3 p.m., Saturday, March 28, 2 p.m., $16/$11, Coleman High School, 430 Hurley Avenue, Hurley; (845) 338-2750. Tickets can be reserved in advance by calling Coleman High School or purchased at the door.