Most musical spectacles come with a spoonful of unique challenges.
For “The Phantom of the Opera,” it’s revealing mirrors, a gondola that gracefully floats upon a magical lake filled with candelabras and a crashing chandelier.
For “Little Shop of Horrors,” it’s a blood-thirsty puppet plant that grows in both its stature and appetite for people as the production progresses.
For “Xanadu,” it’s the roller skating. So much roller skating.
Then, there is “Disney and Cameron Mackintosh’s Mary Poppins.” Ripe with nostalgia and enchantment, it’s a tale that leans heavily on spectacle. Tap dancing, up-side-down stunt work and two leading characters that take flight high above their fellow actors bring the magical story to life before audiences’ eyes.
Dubuque’s Grand Opera House was up for such a challenge. Its production of the show opens tonight and will run through Sunday, July 28.
“We can’t wait to be able to share this with the community,” said Alex Acevedo, brought in from New York City to direct and choreograph the production. “This is sort of the final piece of the puzzle as we prepare. Being in the space, adding the technical effects and the flying elements is like putting the cherry on top.”
In the air
ZFX Flying Effects provided the equipment and training, courtesy of a seasoned flight director who installed the proprietary rigging and worked with a local flight crew and performers for three days.
In total, there are four flight operators. It takes three to fly Mary Poppins and four to fly Bert.
Hannah Von Mulert, who is filling the shoes of the title character, had been mentally preparing for the challenge since learning she was cast as the nanny who is practically perfect in every way. The actress admitted she was “a little afraid of heights” before opening her umbrella to take to the air.
“It actually has been a little easier than I expected,” she said, with a hint of relief in her voice. “I was really nervous about it at first. When I auditioned for the show, it was made known that Mary Poppins can’t be afraid of heights. So, it was always in my mind that I was going to have to be up in the air at some point. The first time was a little scary, but after that first day of going up about 50 times and getting the harness on and seeing how everything worked, there was this great ease.”
Joe Klinebriel, who portrays the whimsical chimney sweep Bert, pulls off perhaps the show’s greatest in-the-air spectacle. Grand officials said to find out, you’ll have to buy a ticket.
“There are so many moving pieces to this musical,” said Klinebriel, who also gets to share the stage with his son, Sam, part of the ensemble. “There always are for shows, but this is a really big show. And the rhythm of the community folks needed to try to pull off what the director has envisioned is a lot to juggle. It has been a great challenge for a number of us, but it also has been so much fun.
“The bar has been set high, but I think that’s great, and it has been a really exciting process. As we’ve gotten closer to opening night, we’ve been able to sense a little more of that Disney magic. I think if the audience has as much fun as we’ve been having, we can’t go wrong.”
No stranger to acting in mid-air, Klinebriel also took flight when he portrayed the Wicked Witch of the West in a 2006 production of “The Wizard of Oz.” He was on the other side of the ropes as the flight operator for his wife, Jill, when she portrayed the title role of “Peter Pan” in 2005.
“For the Wicked Witch, I was able to rotate 360 degrees and move side to side,” Klinebriel said. “What Bert does is really more of a stunt than flying.”
The rigging for such a feat wasn’t the only consideration.
“Very early in the rehearsal process, (costumer) Michelle (Blanchard) had to take and send very specific measurements of Mary and Bert and send them to the company so that their harness could be properly made,” said Frank McClain, executive director at the Grand Opera House.
Many moving parts
Actors aren’t the only flight element. The company had been in rehearsals at an off-site location since May, moving onto the Grand’s stage two weeks ago, so the complex set could be constructed.
In addition to set pieces that are moved on and off stage, seven massive scenic drops fly in from above, including the Banks home on the charming Cherry Tree Lane.
Two additional flight operators — as well as three decks hands, two dressers, two spotlight operators, two sound technicians and one light board operator — do the honors of creating the technical “magic” of the show.
“As soon as we went from the rehearsal space to the theater, the whole rhythm shifted,” Klinebriel said. “It added a rolling excitement for the whole cast.”
A hint of magic
Flying aside, the Grand’s production pulls out all of the trickery audiences have come to expect from the film, including the infectious tunes, “A Spoonful of Sugar,” “Chim Chim Chre-ee,” “Let’s Go Fly a Kite” and “Supercalifragilistic-expialidocious.”
From coat racks pulled from suitcases, the word “magic” is how its company of 31 actors and additional production staff described it.
“They’re such champs,” Acevedo said of the cast. “They make it look effortless. They’re just the hardest working group, and to be surrounded by people that have such a love for theater, it has been like a family. That’s what this show is about.”