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Unionville Theatre Company’s Mary Poppins is ready to soar!

                                      article and photos by Grant Weaver, GuidingStar.ca  

(Feb. 15/15)    You won’t need a spoonful of sugar to enjoy The Unionville Theatre Company’s production of the Disney musical Mary Poppins, a show that promises to be, like Mary herself, magical indeed. 

            With performances for selected audiences on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday mornings, the show premieres for the general public on Thursday evening, February 19, and runs to Sunday, February 22, at Flato Markham Theatre.  This Mary Poppins delivers great music and dance, a definite Wow factor, and even some very wise advice for life. 

            The Unionville Theatre Company’s mission is to bring youth and adults together each year to stage a complete and high quality live entertainment.   Their 2014 production of Shrek was truly memorable but this year’s cast of thirty-four have prepared something supercalifragi ... fragi ... well, you know what I mean ... something really great! 

            Fresh off her success last year as Fiona, Stephanie Birrell returns this year in the lead role of the “practically perfect” nanny and, literally, takes flight. 

            UTC’s Mary Poppins is under the direction, and choreography, of Phillip Nero for whom this show is truly a homecoming.  Phillip played in the company’s West Side Story in 1991, at the age of sixteen.  He went on to perform in the Stratford Festival’s West Side Story in 1999, then The Lion King in Toronto, and Mamma Mia, both in Toronto and on tour.  He has become an accomplished director/choreographer. 

            “Yes, it’s cool to be back,” he told me.  Phillip still sports a scar on his hand  from a cut sustained right here in Flato Markham Theatre in 1991 while rehearsing for the UTC West Side Story production, and he got quite a kick out of returning to his old high school, St. Brother André Catholic High School in Markham, where the company holds its weekday rehearsals.

            Does he feel he has a mission in taking on this production?

            “The art of theatre: singing, dancing, acting, they are all arts that are passed on,” he said.  “You can’t study them in a book.  It’s almost like a journeyman, or apprenticeship, you have to take the time to learn from people who have been around a long time, and those who have been around a long time—it’s up to them to pass on the knowledge and craft to the younger generation.”           

            Even the UTC Board’s choice of Mary Poppins for this year’s production had a special meaning, as Phillip, like many of his generation, grew up with the music of the original Disney movie. 

            Mounting a stage musical of the show, he explained, was a bit daunting just the same.

            “Disney doesn’t keep in mind the low-budget parameters of community theatre when they develop their shows,” he laughed.  “So, there’s magic, there’s flying.”

            Indeed, the original Disney musical had a budget of eleven million dollars!  Practical difficulties can be easily resolved when you have that much money to work with!

            Adding to the challenge was a delay of almost a month in receiving the performance rights for the play from Disney, who were completing a re-write of some elements of the musical.  UTC decided to wait it out as they were very keen that this year they would stage Mary Poppins.  The upside of the delay is that they are performing a refreshed version of the musical; the downside was that the company lost about three weeks of rehearsal time which had to be made up as best they could. 

            And, of course, every year the company can only move into the Flato Markham Theatre space three days before their first performance.  That’s a short time to get a lot of special effects worked out!  

            Sunday, February 15 is moving day.  The set building crew got a 7:30 a.m. start on a frigidly cold winter morning, moving the set, piece by piece, from the Markham Fair Grounds where they had been working on it for the last six weeks.  Reassembling on stage is well underway and will continue till late in the evening.

            In the afternoon, the cast and orchestra are holding one last rehearsal at Crosby Arena before also heading down to the theatre for the evening.

            With Doug Manning conducting the orchestra, Phillip Nero, vocal director David Bertram and stage manager Rob Cline are going to put the cast through a complete run-through. 

            But first, gathered in a circle in front of Rob Cline, they sing Happy Birthday to Nicky Marsh from the cast and wish a happy 46th wedding anniversary to Vic Polsoni from the orchestra, a moment that is typical of the family atmosphere of UTC.

              And then, down to work!

            During the break, I have a chance to chat with Stephanie Birrell who describes the part of Mary Poppins as “a dream role”.

            “There are some big shoes to fill,” she said.  “Everybody hears Julie Andrews when they hear Mary Poppins, but I could never dream of coming anywhere close to that.  But there is a lot of original music in the stage production that is different from the movie, and I do try to make it my own as best I can.”

            Everyone who saw last year’s Shrek knows what a beautiful voice Stephanie has and what a talented actress she is.  Mary Poppins also features some challenging choreography and Stephanie has enjoyed rising to the challenge of it.

            “I am first and foremost a singer, but the choreography has pushed me to do more than I’ve done in the past,” she said.  “We have a fantastic choreographer in Phil.  He’s made us come alive with this choreography.”

            David Sisson is Bert.  Last year in Shrek, he played Lord Farquad, an evil character who stood only four feet high, quite a trick for an actor who is six foot three.  He played the entire show on his knees. 

            This year, in Mary Poppins, he is enjoying standing tall as Bert, a loveable bloke who provides a sharp contrast to the stern Mr. Banks. 

            How does David see Bert?

            Mr. Banks represents stuffiness, rules and organization, “but with Bert, you can still have fun in life, you don’t need to be all organized.”

            Let’s fast forward for a moment to later in the day with Stephanie and David now on the stage at Flato Markham Theatre where they are going to have their first training in “flying”. 

            A technician from the U.S. firm Flying FX has been on hand to assist in the installation of the overhead equipment that is used for theatrical “flying”.  He now can begin training the actors, and the crew who will man the ropes in the wings.  Stephanie and David are both fitted into the harness that they will wear and unto which the ropes will be clipped. 

            Mary Poppins will fly in a dignified nanny kind of way, but Bert will even be doing some somersaults! 

            We’ll come back to all the work at Flato Markham Theatre, but let’s return to where we left off back at  Crosby Arena. 

            The roles of the two children, Michael and Jane, are being doubled as these are very demanding, and exhausting, parts for such young actors.

            One sister and brother pair is played by Isabelle Page and Lucas Kalechestein.

            Isabelle, a Grade 7 student at Parkview Public School in Unionville, is enjoying the role of Jane, and has a humorous take on why.

            “Her personality kind of matches up with mine, so it’s pretty easy.”

            And how do they match up?

            “Well, she’s like a rascal, kind of sassy.  She does stuff I wouldn’t really be able to do at home.”

            Lucas is the youngest cast member, a Grade 4 student in Thornhill, and is very excited to be part of the cast of Mary Poppins.  

            “I’ve learned real choreography, and how I’m not supposed to actually look straight at the audience,” he said.  “It’s been a real learning experience and the directors have all made this really fun.”

            Lucas has already had some TV experience, having appeared on Mike The Knight on Treehouse TV.  He also recently worked on an episode of Super Why.

            The other pair of young actors playing Jane and Michael are Halle Tator and Berkley Silverman. 

            Halle loves the character of Jane.

            “Sometimes she’s really bratty, and sometimes she’s nice.  It’s fun to play all those different characteristics.”

            Berkley has an additional challenge: she’s playing the role of a boy!

            “Obviously, I originally auditioned for Jane, but it’s fun to play Michael because I’ve got a lot of funny lines, and Michael can sometimes be angry, or happy, or excited, or sad.”

            Michael and Jane’s parents, Mr. and Mrs. Banks, are played by Quinton Neufeldt and Robyn Deverett. 

            Quinton has filled major roles in a number of UTC productions: Willy Wonka, Fame, Cats, and Once Upon A Mattress. And, he’s a jack of all trades.  In last year’s production of Shrek Quinton was one of the four stagehands who, from underneath, animated the huge dragon as it made such an awe-inspiring eruption onto the stage.

            Robyn Deverett is in her first appearance with Unionville Theatre Company.  She recently played Elizabeth Benning in Young Frankenstein in Hamilton.  Now that she has graduated from McMaster in physiotherapy, she has returned to Thornhill and is enjoying playing Mrs. Banks for UTC.

            She has found a lot more in the character of Mrs. Banks than she at first thought.

            “At first you think she’s a pushover,” she said, “and then you see, in the song “Being Mrs. Banks”, she decides she’s going to take control and get her family through this difficult time.”

            Vocal Director David Bertram has been a mainstay at UTC for many years and this year, during the performances, will act as Assistant Stage Manager(Right).

            David runs his own vocal training studio but recalls when he taught both Stephanie Birrell and David Sisson in elementary school. 

            This year, due to the delay in obtaining the performance rights, he had many of the lead actors to his home to do additional work on their singing parts.

            Another surprise was that not as many boys came out for auditions as in the past.  That has affected the soprano/alto/tenor/base composition and resulted in some adjustments being made.

            But you can’t go wrong with the music of Mary Poppins.

            “The modern musical is a hybrid,” David explained, “of music from the original movie, that people will recognize right away, and six or seven new pieces that have been added.”

            A further treat for the audience is the dance number “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious”.  The Broadway musical featured a choreography which included spelling all the letters of that endlessly wonderful word through movements of the body and the company was delighted to receive the rights to use that choreography.  I watched the cast rehearse it at Crosby Arena and I can tell you it is very demanding, and highly entertaining.  As one who cannot even do “YMCA” without getting the letters mixed up, I can appreciate the tremendous effort that went into perfecting that dance number! 

            David walked me through the rehearsal process for a production like Mary Poppins.  You don’t commence at the beginning and work your way to the end.  You start with the most challenging group numbers, which were “Jolly Holliday”, “Supercal” (for short), “Anything Can Happen If You Let It”, and “Step in Time”.  And, for these numbers, the cast must first learn the music.  Then begins the introduction of the choreography, and, of course, even while singing and dancing, you must also be acting the part! 

             Yes, a lot has to happen at the same time, and during the show, that can also include set changes. 

            I had always wanted to ask Music Director Doug Manning what it’s like to be orchestra conductor during the performances--visible to the audience, conducting an orchestra hidden in the pit under the stage, keeping an eye on what is happening on stage.  That must be pretty stressful.

            “It’s one of the most challenging things a conductor can do,” he smiled.  “You’re walking a tightrope.  You’ve got seventeen musicians in the pit, at waist level, each one doing their own part.  While that’s going on, above the stage, there are all the actors who are waiting for cues to know when to sing, and a beat pattern to keep them together.  At the same time, you’ve got a little headset that flashes occasionally, which means the stage manager needs to talk to me about some technical issue that may have come up.”

            What happens if there is a delay in making a set change?

            “We have something called a vamp,” he explained, “which is a small section of music which is repeated until the music director decides it’s time to move on.  While I am conducting, if I have my left hand in the air, it means the orchestra needs to repeat those bars until whatever is happening on stage is caught up.”

            Speaking of set changes, Simon Cantrill has returned as set designer.  Today, Simon was at the Markham Fairgrounds early in the morning, beginning the hauling of the set to the theatre, and he expects to be on the stage supervising the completion of the set installation until after midnight. 

            Every year, the company, especially the team involved in creating, transporting, and later storing the set, appreciates the support and assistance they receive from Thornhill Towing.

            In his real life, Simon is a contractor who builds custom homes.  I asked him if working on set design and construction isn’t a bit of busman’s holiday.

            It can be like “leaving work to go to work”, but it is a labour of love.  Starting in early January, the set building crew has work sessions at the Fairgrounds two evenings a week and Sunday afternoons. 

            The events of the Mary Poppins story take place in a dozen or more different settings, making the set design a very challenging puzzle to resolve.  The team came up with two basic structures, each able to be rotated, and also having an additional facade than can be draped over the previous one, making yet another scene.  One of the structures can have the front internal space changed as well.  There are also a number of separate and smaller pieces that create additional settings. 

            In addition to his duties as set designer, Simon is also the producer.  So, he’s pretty busy.  Company stalwart Carlene Flynn lends him a hand with some of the production tasks when he is not available.

            Carlene continues as President of the Board of Unionville Theatre Company and contributes to the success of the company in a great many ways. 

            Being among the first groups to perform the newest version of Mary Poppins, UTC have already had requests from other companies for the rental of costumes.  After last year’s production of Shrek they rented out some costumes and parts of the set.  This has created a new revenue stream and gives the company more funds to work with. 

            Carlene is always involved in costume work for UTC productions, and this year has had help from a number of volunteers, including Nicky Marsh who is a member of the cast, and Michelle Brady whose daughter Sage is also performing.

            The Unionville Theatre Company is grateful to its corporate sponsors, among them, Village Grocer, My Apartment, Headlines, Shell Lumber, EasyPeasy, and to the individuals and families that have made financial contributions to the company’s program.

            Costume designer is Audrey Colphon-Reynolds.  Audrey gave the overall direction to the costume design for the production and personally made the specialty costumes for Mary Poppins.

            Last year, Audrey designed and made the costume for Lord Farquad, which, as we know, made it possible for six-foot three David Sisson to look believable as four feet tall!

            And this year?  Remember, Mary can fly!  The costumes have to be fitted with openings for the flying hooks to be clipped to the underharness that Mary Poppins must wear. 

            Audrey worked on ten UTC shows, from 1995, always in wardrobe.  Moving to Maple took her away for a while, but she is back with the company this year, doing the odd commute, but mainly receiving at home the actors whose costumes she has made. 

            You’ve never wanted to be on stage yourself?

            “I am on stage,” she said. “Every single costume that I have something to do with puts me on stage!  I don’t need the limelight, specifically.”

            Touché!  Everybody who contributes to a production is on stage.

            “It’s all part of a big, big puzzle,” she said. “Everybody has their spot in the whole picture.  Without a piece, it wouldn’t be complete.”

            There are many ways to contribute to a theatre production.  The company has seen young members come up through the ranks and leave their mark. 

            As stage manager Rob Cline pointed out to me, this year some past members have gone on to university and were not able to be a part of the production.  Sydney Keir, for example, acted as dance captain last year but has had to step out this time as she is away at school.  Cassandra Schultz has followed in Sydney’s footsteps, taken on the role as dance captain and made a great contribution in helping make the choreography drills as productive as well.

            During a brief pause in all the activity at the theatre, I chatted with Director/Choreographer Phillip Nero and asked him if, upon taking on the direction of the production, he had vision of what a Mary Poppins production should be. 

            “When I started to think about the story in the context of a director,” he said,” and when I started analyzing the story and its script, I began to see how Mary Poppins is so current: the idea that we all need somebody to guide us, to help us see the world for its potential and not for its negativity.  This is a time when we really could use someone like Mary Poppins in our lives.”

            At the beginning of the rehearsal period, Phillip had sat down with Stephanie Birrell to discuss their concept of the character of Mary Poppins.

            “It came to my mind that Mary Poppins is like the original life coach,” he said.  “It’s very easy to get lost and it’s important to have somebody there to hold your hand, guide you and get you back on track.”

            What does it mean for the kids to be involved in a production like this?

            “It’s an opportunity for kids to learn theatre,” he said, “but also to learn relationships, friendships, to grow as human beings.  To study art is to study life.  And this is really what it is all about: discovering who you are and where you fit in to the world.”

            Many of the songs contain some very basic lessons for life.

            “The idea that “Anything Can Happen If You Let It” is really important for kids to learn, when they are thinking about what they are going to do with the rest of their lives, being in the last few years of high school and facing university.  The lesson behind A Spoonful Of Sugar: you’re going to run into hardships in life.  The key is how you approach those hardships and how you deal with them.  Are you going to let it defeat you or are you going to rise to the occasion?”

            Mary Poppins strikes a chord in so many ways.  The Unionville Theatre Company is going to touch your heart, your funny bone, and have your toe tapping. 

 

For more information about the Unionville Theatre Company, see www.unionvilletheatre.com.

For full show details, and to purchase tickets, visit: www.markhamtheatre.ca.

 

CAST
Mary Poppins ....................................................... Stephanie Birrell
Bert ................................................................... David Sisson
Mrs. Winifred Banks ............................................. Robyn Deverett
Mr. George Banks ................................................ Quinton Neufeldt
Jane .................................................................. Isabelle Page/Halle Tator
Michael .............................................................. Lucas Kalechstein/Berkley Silverman
Miss Andrew/Bird Woman ..................................... Lizza Ocampo
Robertson Ay/Chairman ........................................ Jeff Bolton
Mrs. Brill ............................................................ Janine Fuglerud
Katie Nana ......................................................... Maxine Campitelli
Admiral Bloom / Von Hussler ................................. Eric Schultz
Park Keeper / Northbrook / Policeman / Poseidon ..... Steven Cline
Neleus ............................................................... Cassandra Schultz
Miss Lark ............................................................ Nicky Marsh
Mrs. Corry ........................................................... Taylor Marshall
Annie ................................................................. Nina Marsh
Fanny ................................................................. Sabrina Boyle
Valentine ............................................................ Janelle Stewart
Doll .................................................................... Paige Jacobsen
Mr. Punch ............................................................ Legend Ocampo
Teddy Bear .......................................................... Zoe Michalos
Ensemble ............................................................ Sabrina Amin, Maddie Badun,
                                                                              Isabella Bigioni, Sabrina Boyle,
                                                                              Sage Brady, Frankie Gennaro,
                                                                              Alyssa Hurlburt, Paige Jacobsen,
                                                                              Nina Marsh, Jessamyn McAllister,
                                                                              Zoe Michalos, Erin Navarro,
                                                                              Legend Ocampo,Annika Pavlin,
                                                                              Cassandra Schultz, Janelle Stewart,
                                                                              Devira Thomas, May He Tesoro


ARTISTIC TEAM
Director/Choreographer ......................................... Phillip Nero
Musical Director .................................................... Doug Manning
Vocal Director ....................................................... David Bertram
Dance Captain ...................................................... Cassandra Schultz
Costume Designer ................................................. Audrey Colphon-Reynolds
Set Designer ........................................................ Simon Cantrill
Lighting Designer .................................................. Vince Rotondi
Sound Designer .................................................... Chris MacBride
Stage Manager ..................................................... Robert Cline
Producer .............................................................. Simon Cantrill

PRODUCTION TEAM
Assistant Stage Managers....................................... David Bertram, Courtney Keir
Props Co-Ordinator ............................................... Solveig Barber, Holly Jacobsen
Make-up Supervisors ............................................  Paulina Luciani, Natalie Baranova
Costume Volunteers .............................................  Carlene Flynn, Michelle McDermott-Brady,
                                                                              Eden Brady, Jessie Gilonna, Janelle Stewart,
                                                                              Carolyn Badun, Nicky Marsh
Green Room Coordinators ...................................... Teresa Fitzpatrick, Michelle Yuan
Set Construction, Painting & Backstage Volunteers .... Connie Amin, Farshad Amin, Natalie Baranova,
                                                                              Jenn Bigioni, David Brady, Brianne Buckman-Kalechstein,
                                                                              Carson Bury, Susan Bury, Warren Bury, Nina Campitelli,
                                                                              Teresa Fitzpatrick, Shayla Fullerton, Julia Gartha,
                                                                              Aiden Hamilton, Connor Hamilton, Jordan Hewins,
                                                                              Erik Jacobsen, Krystal Khan, Jesse Morton, Christine Page,
                                                                              Oliver Page, Andrew Page, John Pavlin, Myrna Pavlin,
                                                                              Natasha Perri, Erin Pybus, Keith Pybus, Shannon Pybus,
                                                                              Shari Quallenberg, Eric Schultz, Josh Schultz, Paula Schultz,
                                                                              Hudson Scott,David Sisson’s Uncle, Alanna Stewart.
                                                                              Andrea Stewart, Lance Stewart, Lisa Tator,
                                                                              Sophie Van Dalen, Rob Wells, Michelle Yuan
Website ............................................................... Flora MacDonald
Program Design .................................................... Donna Adams, Barb Kwolek, Bryan Guy
Photography ........................................................ gennarino.ca Photography and Films
                                                                             
Markham Creative Photography
                                                                              Leads: Glenn Abuja, Susan Bury, Awni Mamdani, Basil McGann,
                                                                                         Tariq Soomro, Greg van Sickle, John Wu
Other photographers: Gail Area, George Chan, Indra Dipchand,
                                Troy Hacker, Brian Jarmen, Christine Jordan, Brenda Kazun,
                                Donna Lewis, Carolyn Lundrigan, Valeria Woo

ORCHESTRA
Flutes .................................................................. Skye Sweet, Judith Thornton
Reeds .................................................................. Vittorio Polsoni, Rob Wells
Trumpets ............................................................. Gord Neill, Wally Osbaldeston, Larry Pogue
Horns .................................................................. Tom Fleming, Peter Ottensmeyer
Trombones ........................................................... Ernie Devenyi, Yuki Kitamura, Ron Robbins
Cello .................................................................... Andrea Ottensmeyer
Bass .................................................................... Brian Kruschel
Keyboards ............................................................ Cindy Ma, Odette Wells
Guitar .................................................................. Don Wahamaa
Percussion ............................................................ Heather Wardell

 


 


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