The dolls had come to life, but not sufficiently, apparently.
“The dolls need more expression!” Director Christina Conte called from the front row of the theater. “Like a funhouse, instead of spaced out.”
And the scene was replayed.
There are some fanciful sights in the Huntington Middle School Auditorium each day after school, as students rehearse for performances of their spring musical, “Mary Poppins.” The park statues that came to life in the children’s books of P.L. Travers didn’t make it to the 1964 Disney movie, but they chase the main characters around the stage in the theatrical version. And that’s just part of the whimsical fun of this show.
“I think the kids are really excited about this show because it’s about magic,” Comte said as a rehearsal concluded after dark one school night last week. “It’s transmuting negativity into the positive. [Mary Poppins] fights off evil Miss Andrew, and we can really relate to that right now. We need more positive energy.
“And it’s fun. You can’t beat the music.”
It will open Thursday evening, Feb. 25, and be staged three more times that weekend.
The movie, released in 1964 — before many of these kids’ parents were born — has become one of the most beloved in the Disney catalog, with Julie Andrews as the governess possessing other-worldly powers, Dick Van Dyke as the carefree Bert and a didactic conclusion about putting life’s priorities in correct order. In the era of streaming and DVDs, it is certainly no stranger to these kids.
Logan Wing, who will play Bert — complete with pant legs too short, a loud orange jacket and a jaunty straw boater — declared it “my favorite movie of all time,” estimating that “I’ve probably watched it about 250 times since I was 2.”
He added that, “I’ve basically pretended I was Bert in my bedroom,” and characterized the character as “my doppelganger.”
In the rehearsal last week, it was clear that Wing had a pretty good handle on Bert’s cockney accent. And he nearly conducted his newspaper interview in character. At the conclusion, he departed with a “You have a good day now” in a bouncing British accent.
Heein Kim, who will play the title role, is also familiar with the movie classic, saying of Andrews’ performance, “I’m definitely inspired by her. I want to follow the way she played the role, because she played it extremely well. But at the same time, I do want to put some individuality into the role — a little bit of a twist.”
Glover Talt has been cast as the stuffy Mr. Banks. He said, without irony: “I joined the musical because my character is a lot like me. I’m hard-working and I’m very serious about what I’d like to do, just like Mr. Banks in the play. He’s very serious about his job as a banker.”
If these actors seem a bit more introspective than the typical middle school student, well, welcome to public education in San Marino. The director has certainly noticed.
“The kids are very bright, and this is very high-level stuff I would almost do [directing] in college,” Conte said. “We’re talking about acting motivations and they understand it.”
She says they’ve also taken well to the physical comedy of the musical — “kind of that Jim Carrey, big, over-the-top comedy. They love it.”
Conte is further impressed with the advanced nature of the students’ musical training, a tribute to HMS Choir Director Derek Jamieson, whose classroom, conveniently, is a few steps from the stage.
The play certainly provides a showcase for the young voices. The original movie, showcasing the masterful songwriting of Richard and Robert Sherman, won the Oscar for best score, and “Chim Chim Cher-ee” took the Oscar for best original song. Other favorites that have worn well with the years include “Spoonful of Sugar,” “Let’s Go Fly a Kite” and, of course, “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.” The students were doing a nice job with “Jolly Holiday” in a run-through for choreographer Lea Woods last week.
When it was over, Conte looked to the Presidents’ Day weekend and the frantic countdown to opening night that lay ahead. “OK,” she called out. “Four days off. Drill the play, every day — with your blocking. And don’t get sick!”
Huntington Middle School will stage “Mary Poppins” on Feb. 25, 26 and 27 at 7 p.m., and on Feb. 28 at 2 p.m. Tickets, which are $10, are available in advance at the school office (1700 Huntington Drive) and will also be sold at the door.