Mary Poppins gets a fresh spin on-stage
The film may be called Mary Poppins, but Bert, the beloved, soot-smudged chimney sweep brought to life by Dick Van Dyke in that movie, is every bit as iconic as Julie Andrews’s original supernanny. In fact, it’s hard to imagine anyone else “Chim Chim Cher-ee”–ing with anything close to the giddy energy of the elastic 1960s star.
That’s why it’s so remarkable that 28-year-old Case Dillard has managed to make the role of Bert his own in the hit touring production of the musical version of Mary Poppins. In St. Louis, they called him “irresistible”; a Nashville journal said he “shines”; and in the Bay Area, he was deemed “extremely talented”. The young star, who started out in the touring show’s ensemble, theorizes that the reason his part has been a hit is that he’s stayed away from the 1964 film.
“I haven’t seen the movie since I was eight or nine, and at this point I haven’t consciously watched it because I don’t want to emulate what Dick Van Dyke does,” the upbeat Dillard admits, speaking to the Georgia Straight from Albuquerque, New Mexico, one stop in a gruelling, yearlong North American tour. “You think about Mary and Bert, and they’re not necessarily the protagonists of the show. Ultimately, it’s about Mr. Banks and his family. We come in as guardian angels of sorts. So you have to come at it with a huge amount of passion and energy and life, and I’ve been able to make it my own.”
Speaking of his costar Rachel Wallace (Mary), he adds: “Rachel and I have been chosen because we kind of are those roles.”
The fresh spins the actors put on their parts hint at the larger approach of a production that doesn’t aim to simply give a live treatment to the classic film. As Dillard points out, the show—which debuted in London’s West End in 2004 and hit Broadway in 2006—also draws heavily on the books by P. L. Travers. (And word has it the British author was not exactly a big fan of the classic movie.)
“The books are kind of dark and Grimm-fairy-tale-like,” Dillard says, explaining that they reflected some of the hardships the author herself had undergone as a child. “So this show has the best parts of the movie and the best things about the book.”
But the script brings modern relevance and wit to the tale, too: it’s written by Julian Fellowes, who has penned everything from the Oscar-winning movie Gosford Park to the hit Brit-TV series Downton Abbey. “He’s very good at the upstairs-downstairs thing,” Dillard remarks.
Still, for all its smart contemporary lines and dazzling storybook sets (complete with a three-storey house that unfolds on-stage), Mary Poppins attracted Dillard because it was a good, old-fashioned song-and-dance musical. Only months out of college, he hounded his agent to get him an audition for the musical.
“There’s not many shows like this one anymore. It’s old-school music theatre, and it’s a throwback to an earlier time,” Dillard enthuses. “It’s not Wicked, and it’s not a jukebox musical like Mamma Mia!. It’s more like Singin’ in the Rain.”
No doubt, the production’s fancy footwork was the key draw for Dillard, who has done everything from tap-dancing as a boy to spending his high-school years at a ballet boarding school.
His star moment comes in the number “Step in Time”, when he taps his way along the floor, walls, and ceiling in an extended sequence as gravity-defying as any scene of Mary floating through the air on her umbrella. But don’t let Bert’s wide smile fool you in the number: it’s brutally hard work.
“There’s a 25-minute period of time where I’m wearing a harness. It inhibits your movement, and there’s this kick-line thing in the middle when everyone’s kickin’ for Jesus and I’ve got this confining thing on,” Dillard says. “Plus, we’re tapping on a metal stage and I’m wearing four microphones at that point: two on my head and two on my feet. And never mind the Victorian moleskin costumes.”
Hey, even our ever-cheerful chimney sweep has to admit that a show this big is not all spoonfuls of sugar.
Mary Poppins plays at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre from Tuesday to next Sunday (July 17 to 22).