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Staging a magical 'Mary Poppins'

03/13/2017 10:55AM ● Published by J. Chambless

The cast of 'Mary Poppins' runs through the final pose for ' Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.'

Gallery: Mary Poppins at UHS [3 Images] Click any image to expand.

By John Chambless
Staff Writer

At Unionville High School, there's no such thing as putting on a little show. The spring musical, which this year is “Mary Poppins,” is an all-hands-on-deck effort. This year, Scott Litzenberg, who is usually leading the school's award-winning marching band, is directing the show for the third time.

During an after-school rehearsal last week, as the days ticked down to opening night on March 16, Litzenberg was presiding over a run-through of a dance routine for “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.”

“This is my third year of directing the show,” Litzenberg said as the dancers found their places on stage. “I did 'West Side Story' here two years ago, and I did 'Shrek' last year. We started working with the cast just after New Year's Day, and the pit orchestra works basically for the last two-and-a-half weeks. They all rehearse on their own, and then we work together later.”

There are 47 people in the cast, along with about 55 in the tech and stage crew, and 23 musicians in the orchestra. Add that to a production team of six, and just managing all the questions could be a full-time job.

This year's show, the Disney musical version of “Mary Poppins,” has an added layer of complexity because Mary has to fly, and her friend Bert, the chimney sweep, has to climb the walls – literally.

The rigging rental “cost almost twice as much as what it cost us to do the whole show,” Litzenberg said. The mechanism arrived on March 10, followed by eight hours of training from the company on Saturday and Sunday. When the harness is up and working, the audience will get to see Bert walk up the stage proscenium and then walk across the ceiling. It's a showstopper that will add to the magic of the beloved musical, but first, there were the thousand details of getting 47 teens all moving in the right directions.

“The students do all the lighting design, all the stage design. I give them what I want, but the kids make it happen,” Litzenberg said. “It's so intense, and it's a lot of time, but this is so much fun. It's great to see the kids figure it out and work as a team. They're just good kids.”

The 1960s movie version of “Mary Poppins” is much sunnier than the stage play, he said. “There are some major differences, with a couple of slightly darker scenes that reflect more of what the original story was. Some of the lessons that Mary tries to teach the kids are slightly darker than they were in the movie.”

Since two of the characters in the story are supposed to be young children, there are two actors from middle schools playing Jane and Michael Banks. Other middle schoolers who tried out have been cast as well. “We actually have four middle schoolers in the show,” Litzenberg said. “It's been really fun to watch them. The high-school kids have taken the younger kids under their wing. It's neat to see the kids embrace it. We have sixth graders with twelfth graders, and they're all treated like they're part of the team.”

To give students more experience, there are different student choreographers for each dance routine. Supervised by an adult choreographer, the students are responsible for choreographing and running rehearsals for their numbers – taking into account the wide range of dance abilities in such a large cast.

Putting together the spring musical each year involves much more than what an audience will see on stage. There's an army of parent volunteers who make meals for the cast during this week's crucial technical rehearsals, which stretch into the night. There's advertising and ticket sales and the display in the lobby – all taken on by parents, Litzenberg said.

“It's been tradition for many years,” he said. “The parents always get very involved. The best thing about it is that it takes all those things off our plate.”

The state-of-the-art auditorium at Unionville High School is a wonderful resource, but it's also huge. Thankfully, the seats are usually mostly filled for every performance.

“We average about 1,000 people per show,” Litzenberg said. “We've been selling out. For 'West Side Story,' we were about 200 tickets away from selling out all three nights. It's more than parents and family members who come, too. I think the tradition of Unionville musicals has driven a lot of people to come and enjoy our shows. There's a lot of alumni, and alumni parents, who come back every year. A lot of the district employees and their kids and grandkids come every year. Teachers love seeing their kids doing this.”

For the cast and crew of young people, “it gives them somewhere to be,” Litzenberg said. “But the most important thing is that it teaches them self-confidence. It's the same thing that any activity does – whether it's music or sports or clubs – it gives them a chance to learn how to become part of a team.”

Unionville High School will present the classic musical “Mary Poppins” on March 16, 17 and 18 at 7:30 p.m. Online ticket sales are available at www.showtix4u.com for $12. Tickets at the door are $14 adults ($12 students and seniors). Performances will be at Unionville High School (750 Unionville Rd., Kennett Square).

To contact Staff Writer John Chambless, email jchambless@chestercounty.com.

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