Bert (Justin Schuman, L) paints a colorful scene that comes to life in Wagon Wheel Theatre’s production of ‘Mary Poppins.’ Photo by Gary Nieter, Times-Union.
Bert (Justin Schuman, L) paints a colorful scene that comes to life in Wagon Wheel Theatre’s production of ‘Mary Poppins.’ Photo by Gary Nieter, Times-Union.
Whether they’re 5 or 95, most people know who Mary Poppins is, largely from the 1964 Disney movie based on the P.L. Travers series of books.
Wagon Wheel Theatre is producing the musical stage adaptation of “Mary Poppins” through June 14. Playing the title role is Kira Lace Hawkins, with Justin Schuman as Bert. Monday afternoon, the two sat down for an interview about the characters and the musical.
“In the musical it’s kind of interesting because Bert serves as our narrator, which he does kind of in the original movie, but it’s even more prevalent and obvious in the musical version,” Schuman said. “So I’ve been playing with this idea of Bert as a narrator and Bert within the story ‘Mary Poppins.’ He’s just a really quirky, genuine, sincere kind of soul, who in our story at least helps Mary Poppins in saving the Banks family.”
Schuman said his approach to playing the role is to bring his own weird and fun, down-to-earth personality to the character. He used his own traits as the starting point to play Bert, he said.
“Mary Poppins is, I think, she’s got a touch of magic about her. She obviously comes from the sky and kind of dances in and out,” Hawkins explained. “I’ve played with things that the audience doesn’t necessarily need to know, but does she age? Is she really just a magical creature that comes in and out when help is needed?
“The thing I like most about her is that  even though she’s a very stoic character, she has a lot of love, I think, for this family and that’s why she wants to help this family and see them on their way. And you kind of see that as she leaves for the last time, when she ultimately leaves the Banks and says, ‘I wish I could stay but I know they have to do this on their own.’ She’s a very loving character.”
Since the movie “Mary Poppins” is celebrating its 50th anniversary this August, and the movie’s leads are well-known actors Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke, playing such popular characters could be challenging for some actors. Hawkins just rewatched the film Sunday night, and that spurred a conversation between her and Schuman about “doing it right.”
“That role of Bert was a vehicle for Dick Van Dyke. It wasn’t (like) any actor could have done that. It was for him, I have to believe that. I actually don’t think I would be doing this version justice if I went out and said to myself to do Dick Van Dyke. If I didn’t go out there and do my version of Bert, it would come across as being inauthentic,” Schuman said.
He said he didn’t feel any pressure to play Van Dyke’s Bert because his Bert is just different and he’s not trying to compare himself.
“And along the same lines, no one can be Julie Andrews, so I’ll just push that aside,” Hawkins said. “It also helps that the musical version is quite different than the movie. Kind of different plot line, although a lot of familiar songs are still intact. But there are different new songs the audience won’t be familiar with. So I don’t have to worry too much about completely following in her footsteps.”
Schuman said the songs that people love from the movie “Mary Poppins,” like “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious,” “Spoonful Of Sugar” and “Feed the Birds,” are in the musical, except “I Love To Laugh.”
“The songs that were written for the musical itself actually strongly tie the piece back to the book series by P.L. Travers,” he said.
“If you have read P.L. Travers’ books, I think that the original source material goes even further into the dark elements in ‘Mary Poppins.’ It’s even more so stoic and just not kind, hardly ever. I think the musical provides this nice bridge between the Disney movie and the original books, adding in some of those darker elements,” Hawkins explained.
Another thing to look forward to seeing in the Wagon Wheel show is Hawkins flying on stage, just like Poppins did in the movie.
“I do get to fly! But I’m the only one,” Hawkins said. “So there’s some nice flight moments throughout the show.”
However, the movie had animated characters, which the stage production addresses in a different way.
Schuman said, “As for the animated characters, our costume department, Stephen, he is a one-man band, with the seamstress he has, has done a wonderful job of translating the characters from the movie and from Broadway into our Wagon Wheel Production. And we have Jen Dow, who does these incredible wigs. The wigs themselves – with the costumes – are helping to create this wonderful coloring book kind of world.”
The stage production has less requirement for animated characters, but it still pays homage to those from the movie, Schuman explained, especially with the color palette of the stage and scenery.
There are many different themes from “Mary Poppins,” but Hawkins said one major one is putting family first and tending the home before you go out and make money.
“Mr. Banks, as in the movie, has a very business-oriented – he wants his home to run like a corporation and when that ultimately isn’t working, he doesn’t quite understand until he lets that go and lets happiness back into his life, lets his love of his children become the forefront of what he cares about. So I see Mary Poppins’ role as opening his eyes to that and reminding him of his own childhood and things he missed out on and how he can provide that to his own kids,” Hawkins said.
“I think there are strands of ‘be careful what you wish for,’ which I know Kira has a lot of moments where that’s prevalent. That’s a very strong lesson that she attempts to teach the Banks children,” Schuman added.
In the musical, he said Bert acts as a narrator and comes on stage to highlight some of the lessons that preceeded or are about to occur in the musical.
“I think one of the biggest lessons is that anything can happen if you let it. We say that line so many times,” Schuman said.
To see the full, two-part video of this interview, visit the free video section of the Times-Union website at www.timesuniononline.com
“Mary Poppins” is presented by Zimmer and The Wagon Wheel Theatre. Tickets range from $18 to $36. Discounts are available for college students and on designated performances for seniors. For more information, visit wagonwheeltheatre.org or call 574-267-8041.