(Broadway, New York) Mary Poppins the musical isn’t magical because of the title character’s ability to fly or pull furniture out of her bag (no shock there). The real surprises come from the imaginations of co-choreographer Stephen Mear and choreographer and co-director Mathew Bourne, who won Olivier Awards for their work when the show—their first collaboration—debuted on London’s West End in December, 2004.
“Dance forwards the story a lot in Mary Poppins,” explains Mear. “It takes you to the next place. It tells the story through the kids eyes.” Indeed, for Jane and Michael Banks, the bored children of Cherry Tree Lane, Ms. Poppins represents a fantasyland full of intrigue, intellect, energy and color.
So it is during the “Jolly Holiday” scene when Jane and Michael are introduced to Mary Poppins’ world for the first time. What was once proper and mundane becomes relaxed and fun—and it’s all done through dance. While taking a walk in the park, the statues come to life. Remarkably, before the first muscle twitch, it’s undetectable the statues are actual people.
The choreography during this first major dance sequence is equally jolting, because Mear and Bourne amalgamated at least three different styles, creating a hodgepodge of quirky hand gestures, sophisticated footwork and virtuosic leaps and turns. The piece was also one of the few that changed from the English version to the American one. “We let the characters bring their own to it,” says Mear. “Ashley Brown is sensa tional,” he adds. “She brought such a lot. It’s so funny because all the Mary’s we’ve had have been great but I just find Ashley lovely. She’s really got a twinkle in her eye.”
Mear admits “Jolly” was one of the hardest scenes to create, because it was truly a collaboration between himself, a self-described tapper and showman, and Bourne, who has more of a penchant for contemporary dance and ballet, and is known for his groundbreaking dance theater productions (in his Swan Lake, the lead roles are taken by men, and his version of Edward Scissorhands is told entirely without dialogue). “Our backgrounds help create a bigger scope in the choreography,” says Mear. “The only thing is that it’s hard to cast the show because you have to be able to do everything.”
The cast member’s abilities certainly do help fully realize a choreographer’s vision. Once Mear found out Gavin Lee was cast as Bert, the chimney sweep, he knew that at least one of his ideas could be brought to fruition. “I had worked with Gavin before,” says Mear, “and I wanted him to try to go up the side of the stage, like in Singing in the Rain—walk up the wall and all that.”
In the end, it was Bob Crowley, the show’s scenic and costume designer, however, who came up with the final manifestation of the “Chim Chim Cher-ee” reprise in the second act when he suggested Lee simply dance on the ceiling. Lee not only tap dances on the ceiling but he does so while the platform he’s strapped to moves along the top of the stage from one end to the other. “The funniest thing was when I was trying to teach Gavin to tap upside down,” says Mear. “I was saying give me some beats, give me some beats and he said ‘Stephen it’s really hard upside down.’ Eventually I got all the beats I wanted. He’s fabulous.”