This year, both Junior Clare Henry and Senior Abigail Shapiro are cast as Mary in the production, directed by James Meehan, choreographed by Melissa Zaremba, with Steve Scherer serving as technical and musical director in his final show at CA.
Meehan points out that the decision to cast two actors, both of whom deliver two performances, was both an artistic and a practical choice.
“Both Clare and Abigail gave superb auditions,” he says. “In the back of our minds was the possibility of a COVID quarantine at the time of the performance. So we cast both, to be prepared for any last-minute surprise.”
For Shapiro, assuming the lead role is a longtime dream fulfilled. “I’ve been doing theater for so many years at CA,” she says. “Having the lead role my Senior year is everything that ‘elementary school Abigail’ would have wanted and more.”
Henry was equally thrilled. “It’s the part I really wanted,” she says. “I was over the moon.”
Each performer has her own interpretation of Mary.
Henry sees Mary as having two very different sides—one which leads with firmness, and one which leads with her heart. “I think she toes the line between confident and arrogant,” says Henry. “There are moments where you wonder if she should really be looking after children! Then there are moments when her heart breaks through, and you know she really cares.”
Shapiro has a candid appraisal of her character. “I don’t think Mary Poppins on the page is necessarily likeable,” she says. “My hope is to take her off the page and make her likeable to the audience.”
Both Marys perform opposite the same chimneysweep, Bert, played by Junior J.T. Timmers, who says this is definitely not a case of typecasting.
“I love the role, but everything about Bert is flamboyant. Every action is extreme,” Timmers says. “I am reserved and more academic. Bert takes control of the audience, and so it’s a challenge for me to have that experience interacting with the audience.”
Timmers also finds himself stretched in another aspect of the role. While his family loves musical theater, and he has watched dancers on stage much of his life, he is, by admission, “not a dancer at all!” And that’s where Upper and Middle School Dance Instructor Melissa Zaremba makes her entrance.
‘Step in Time!’
Zaremba has a long history with Mary Poppins. She performed in the show in Chicago in 2014. She choreographed the show for a Texas university in 2015. “I know it well,” she says with a laugh.
She knows it’s a challenging show, with several long dance production numbers that Disney added when the movie moved to the Broadway stage. The dance styles vary from tap, to basic partner dancing, to classical musical theater. With a cast of 30 in the CA production, Zaremba has her work cut out for her, teaching students who may never have danced before to strut their stuff on the stage.
The students appreciate her hard work. “I’ve never been a dancer,” says Shapiro. “But Ms. Zaremba has instilled in me a love for dance. She shares her passion for tap dance with other students. We couldn’t do the show without her.”
Zaremba points out that much of the joy in this show comes from the timing. “This is the first time since I came to work at CA that we haven’t been in a pandemic,” she says. “And we get to do a show with a lot of dance! CA has not seen that in a while, and the kids are super excited to be doing it on a new stage.”
‘Chim Chim Cher-ee’
Ask Technical and Musical Director Steve Scherer about the production of Mary Poppins, and he keeps coming back to the word “big.”
“The challenge of Mary Poppins is trying to figure out the massive set needs and how they fit on the stage,” says Scherer. “Not to mention where you store the scenery when it’s not on stage.”
A lot of the atmosphere for the show is established through images that are projected. But other items—a gate, furniture for the house, a “talking shop,” and a bakery where fine china falls off the wall and then resets itself—were engineered and built by Advanced Technical Theater students based on designs by Scherer.
“When you watch this show, you should always remember the hundreds of hours that tech theater students put into making it look professional,” says Scherer. “They design and engineer special effects and problem solve along the way. They may not be in the spotlight, but their artistic selves are on the stage.”
As Musical Director, Scherer taught all the students what he calls the “incredibly intricate score” of the show. In the new Leach Center for the Performing Arts, an 11-piece professional orchestra played from the orchestra pit for the first time.
But Scherer chose not to be the main director for the final production of his 28 years at CA.
“I stepped into the wings to give people the chance to take my place,” he says. “We have talented people at CA who can do the job.”
Meehan chose Mary Poppins because it’s a “fun, family musical, and everyone knows it.” Part of what makes it fun is the aerial acrobatics. The two Marys and Bert have a chance to perform in the air, a thrill for any actor, and especially one in high school.
“When Mr. Scherer told me, ‘Abigail, you are going to fly, I think I screamed,’” Shapiro says. “I ran over to Clare and we just jumped up and down.”
“Heights are not a fear for me,” laughs Henry.
“Bert has this great ensemble moment called ‘Step in Time,’ where I get to fly over everyone’s head,” Timmers says. “I think it may be the highlight of my high school career.”
As Director, Meehan handled lighting, sound, ran projection of images, and kept the entire cast focused through rehearsals that started in February and ran through April. “The students worked so hard because they really wanted to do a good show,” he says. “They were under pressure, but they responded well, and to see their hard work come together is really rewarding.”
“Mr. Meehan is wonderful,” Henry says. “He has a fun way of directing. He has ideas, but he also likes to hear what we want to do.”
‘A Spoonful of Sugar’
Without a doubt, Mary Poppins is a big show—“exceptionally grand,” says Henry.
“We worked 10 times harder to pull it together to make it look good,” she adds. “That brought the cast that much closer. We are a giant family.”
The experience students gain from this performance extends far beyond the stage, far beyond the Leach Center, and far beyond CA.
“You learn from the characters as you play them. You learn teamwork, how to communicate and be confident, and you carry that out of the theater with you,” says Henry. “Theater is a gift.”
“I don’t think I would be as successful a student without theater,” adds Shapiro. “It taught me what hard work looks like, it taught me what success and disappointment feel like, and it taught me how to overcome challenges. All of those skills come to play in all facets of life.”
For Scherer, Mary Poppins is a fitting way to say farewell to CA. “I have many happy memories, no regrets, it’s been a great run,” he says. “And now, just like Mary Poppins, I am going to fly away.”
The ultimate lesson of Mary Poppins may have been timed perfectly for a school and society navigating a new normal during a multi-year pandemic. “This show is near and dear to my heart because there are wonderful life lessons in it pertinent to our times now,” says Zaremba. “Take time for what’s important. Be with your family. And never forget the joys of childhood.”