Right now, huge sets are being furiously constructed, massive dance routines meticulously choreographed and special effects carefully engineered all in preparation for what director Donna Drake has called "the biggest production The Rep has ever done."
The Arkansas Repertory Theatre opens the musical March 6, giving audiences of all ages the chance to relive memories of the catchy songs and magical whimsy of "Mary Poppins" with several surprises along the way.
"Poppins" is so deeply embedded in our culture that "supercalifragilisticexpialidocious" is recognized by spellcheck. The essence of what those familiar with the movie recall will all be there — spoiled children, uptight bankers, flying nannies, and extravagant musical dance numbers — but the play includes additional elements that fans of the original P.L. Travers book may recognize and that give a new appeal to those who've only seen the classic Disney-produced film. In place of dancing penguins (notoriously difficult to train, I'm told), we'll have statues coming to life.
"It's a great combination of all the things you love along with new characters that bring some additional depth to the play," said Tom Souhrada, who plays Mr. Banks, the aptly-named, financially focused father of the children in the play. One of the main new characters is Miss Andrew, the strict and overbearing former nanny of Mr. Banks. She is played by Q. Smith, who Souhrada said will "knock your socks off" with her voice. "She's worth the price of admission alone," he added.
Smith, who's played the character several times on Broadway and elsewhere said, "We're not duplicators; once I finish a production, I leave it there so I can try new things for the next one. I love connecting with new people and new actors each time."
Fans of the PBS hit "Downton Abbey" should also take note that the show's creator, Julian Fellowes, wrote the "Poppins" script. "He knows the Edwardian period so well, but he writes for a contemporary audience," Souhrada said. Fellowes' script gives more background to the story of Banks family and their journey.
"While the kids will love it, this is really for the whole family," Drake said. "All families have similar issues to work through and I think many parents can relate to Mr. Banks' story." Mr. Banks is worried about losing his job and his house. "I think the play does what theater does best: gives us a mirror for us to see a reflection of our own lives," Souhadra said.
Alongside the play's insights into family dynamics is a slew of musical dance classics like "Step in Time," "Let's Go Fly a Kite," and, of course, "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious," which choreographer Rhonda Miller called a "showstopper."
"I fell in love with all these numbers as a kid, and it's been exciting for me to channel my love for the play into my work," she said. " 'Step in Time' has been a favorite piece of mine for a long time and I love that I'm finally getting to choreograph it."
The rest of the cast can relate: Souhrada said "Mary Poppins" was the first movie he remembers seeing as a child. "It was a big inspiration for me, made me want to be a performer, and now getting to see it through other kids' eyes, watching them find the same joy in it that I did, it's great."
The play will also feature two Arkansas fifth-graders, Addison Rae Dowdy and Madison Stolzer, both members of the Rep's Summer Musical Theatre Intensive program.
"The roles these kids do are probably the hardest of all musicals; they're on stage the whole time, doing comedy and drama, and performing with a British accent. They are really talented," Souhrada said.
"It's a lot for them, surrounded by adults asking for them to understand and show complex emotions, but they're really stepping up," Drake said. "It's great to watch them 'get it,' to see the light bulbs go on."
Those who experienced the joy of "Elf" over the Christmas season can expect much of the same opportunities for kids to enjoy themselves before, during and after the play, including treats, photos with cast members and surprises.
"Mary Poppins" opens Friday, March 6, and plays through Sunday, April 12. Special events include "Pay What You Can Night" Wednesday, March 4, a panel discussion at the Clinton School at noon on Thursday, March 5, and "Cabaret With the Cast," where cast members perform their favorite numbers, on Monday, March 16, at 7 p.m. Find more information at therep.org.