What’s it like, one has to wonder, to be cast as one of the most famous fictional characters in the history of children’s literature?
“It’s very exciting,” says Alanna Weatherby, who, beginning this weekend, will play author P. L. Travers’ beloved flying nanny Mary Poppins, when the Santa Rosa Junior College’s theater arts department takes a crack at the insanely popular stage musical.
Based on the acclaimed 1964 Disney movie, with a pleasantly dark-tinged new script by Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellowes, this Mary Poppins contains many of the same moments that charmed audiences in the Julie Andrews’ film. But it removes some of the elements that horrified the author of the books (dancing penguins, upside-down tea parties!), while layering in a number of bits that those who’ve actually read the books might remember—slightly frightening dancing toys, talking statues, an adversarial nanny full of brimstone and treacle.
But the true value of any production of Mary Poppins is not measured out in teaspoons and medicine bottles, but in the actor recruited to play the title character herself.
“Julie Andrews is one of my favorite people in the world,” admits Weatherby, whose enthusiasm and exhilaration are palpable, even over the phone, as the ArtQuest graduate prepares for a rehearsal at Burbank Auditorium, just days before the Friday-night opening. “The fact that I get to play one of Julie Andrews’ most famous roles is really daunting,” she says, sounding not the least bit daunted. “She originated the role,” Weatherby adds, “and now I get to put my own spin on Mary Poppins.”
The actress almost got to make “spin” literal the first time she strapped on the harness and was pulled into the air by wire to practice the indelible moment when Mary flies into view.
“I do get to fly!” Weatherby laughs. “I was so nervous at first, but when I finally got there and I lifted up into the air, it was very exciting. I really wasn’t that frightened. After a few moments dangling above the stage,
I actually wanted to try doing a flip in the air.”
Alas, this Mary Poppins merely floats above the stage, ladylike and proper.
“Bert gets to do a flip, though,” Weatherby says.
Wait. Bert (Noah Sternhill), the chimney sweep, also flies?
“In our show he does,” Weatherby says. “Mary Poppins has that effect on people. Well, my Mary Poppins does.”