This weekend, more than 100 students will take to the New Paltz Middle School auditorium’s stage — and backstage, and even the auditorium’s floor — to present a gigantic and tuneful extravaganza: a production of Mary Poppins Jr. It’s directed by Mary Holmes, a Spanish teacher who has been organizing the school’s winter musicals since she came to New Paltz ten years ago. “I’ll take anybody who will work. I try to incorporate all their talents,” says a weary Holmes at the end of a long and complex run-through eight days before opening night. “I want these kids to understand what goes on behind the curtain — to appreciate theater and how hard it is to do.”
Indeed, the rehearsal seems like an exercise in herding cats, with group after group of actors, singers and dancers — “Poppins singers,” children, chimney sweeps, bankers, police and pickpockets — replacing one another in various positions in the hall to practice their parts. Some of the songs, such as “Let’s Go Fly a Kite” and “Step in Time,” are huge production numbers. Holmes puts the student thespians efficiently through their paces with help from Special Ed teacher Mary Guirma (whose daughter Danielle, a professional ballerina, choreographed a dance sequence on pointe for “Feed the Birds”); music teacher and chorus conductor Will Halpern, serving as co-music director for Mary Poppins Jr.; and Nick Zaccheo, a SUNY Ulster student who is volunteering his time as the production’s sound director.
“I was in plays directed by Mary Holmes when I was in middle school,” says Zaccheo, who remains bitten by the stage bug despite majoring in Adolescent Education. Several students similarly inspired by Holmes have gone on to theatrical careers, including one from her years of teaching in Syracuse who now sings in the Metropolitan Opera chorus: “He chose Gaston [from Beauty and the Beast] over football,” Holmes reports, noting that her current ensemble also includes “some of the best athletes in the school.”
Aidan Rice, a seventh-grader, started out as one of those boys who thought theater was dorky, but was converted by Holmes. “In fifth grade [at Lenape], we all had to come to see the Middle School play. I thought, ‘This is going to be terrible.’ I was not happy about coming,” he relates. “But it really inspired me to do a show, because they were actually really good.” In fact, Rice was cast in one of Mary Poppins Jr.’s plum roles: George Banks, the gruff and distant father of Jane and Michael, the two mischievous children for whom the magical nanny of the title is employed.
In the 2004 musical version of Mary Poppins, based on a combination of the 1964 Disney movie and P. L. Travers’ original book series, George gets a more complex and sympathetic backstory than his screen counterpart. Other changes have been made as well, including dropping some of the Sherman Brothers numbers from the movie score, adding some new songs by George Stiles and Anthony Drewe, replacing some movie characters with book ones and so on. Although the story is still set in Edwardian England, Jane and Michael’s mother, Winifred Banks, is no longer a suffragette (though Kaitlyn Weinerman’s costume in the NPMS production includes a “Votes for Women” sash). Women may not exercise their voting franchise yet in this Poppinsverse, but they certainly can be chimney sweeps, with girls making up more than half of the dance team.
This “Junior” version of Mary Poppins the musical, only recently made available for school productions, has a 70-minute running time so that it can feasibly be performed without an intermission — although the NPMS show will include one, Halpern notes. Another difference: “They changed the keys of the songs, so that they’re more fitting for middle-school kids’ voices.” Some movie sequences requiring costly special effects, such as dancing penguins and floating tea parties, were eliminated entirely; and here in New Paltz, the nanny’s arrival by airborne umbrella is being depicted using a video projection system. “She’ll be flying through the sky with birds and clouds. It’s on the editing floor as we speak,” says Guirma.
The other stars of the show are Lizzie Roff as Jane, Darion Mumper as Michael, Jack Iovanella (who is not being tasked with speaking in Dick Van Dyke’s infamously inaccurate Cockney accent) as Bert and Christine Vigliotti as Mary Poppins herself. Vigliotti, an eighth-grader who says that she has acted in plays “all through school” and also takes theater classes at From Stage to Screen in Highland, landed the lead role by singing the song “Practically Perfect” at her audition. “Mary Poppins was one of my favorite movies when I was younger, so I really wanted to play the part,” Vigliotti says. “I’ve always loved theater.”
Mary Poppins Jr. will be performed at the New Paltz Middle School Auditorium at 7 p.m. on Friday and Saturday, February 23 and 24, with 2 p.m. matinées on Saturday and Sunday, the 24th and 25th. Tickets to all shows cost $5 and will be on sale at the door beginning 45 minutes prior to each performance.