“Mary Poppins” plays the Fox Theatre beginning April 2.
Reality’s limitations prevent the cast of the Mary Poppins stage musical from replicating the famous feats of the 1964 Disney film, like dancing with animated penguins or tea-partying on the ceiling.
Still, Con O’Shea-Creal, who plays the irrepressible chimney sweep Bert, does get to conjure a few jaw-dropping moments of stage magic. He delivers a particularly impressive stunt in the rooftop number “Step in Time,” in which Bert walks up the side of the stage wall, crosses the proscenium arch upside down and tap-dances in defiance of gravity.
Like any good magician, O’Shea-Creal declines to share his secrets, but he will describe the experience.
“I’m upside-down for close to a minute — any longer than that and I’d be in trouble,” says the singer-dancer, 27. “I’m really keeping my core tight and trying to keep the blood from rushing to my head. My body’s adjusted to it, so when I get to the proscenium, I can sing. It’s never really been disorienting, but I have to keep my wits about me, stay calm, sing and tap with the music. The difficult part is stepping onto the wall and off of the ceiling.”
Such feats of stage sorcery have, no doubt, helped feed the success of the stage musical, based partly on the iconic 1964 film and partly on P.L. Travers’ original children’s books about a magic nanny who unifies misbehaving children and their distracted parents. This Mary Poppins, featuring the songs of the Oscar-winning Sherman brothers as well as new music and lyrics by George Stiles and Anthony Drewe, opened in London in 2004 and made its Broadway debut in 2006. It’s proved more popular with audiences than critics, winning just one of seven Tony Awards for which it was nominated (scenic design) but now in the sixth year of its New York run.
O’Shea-Creal joined the Poppins national tour a year ago as Bert’s understudy and part of the ensemble. It gave the Lincoln, Neb., native, a longtime tap dancer, a chance to prove he has Bert-like dexterity.
“They needed an everyman jack-of-all-trades and a professional tap dancer,” he says. “Bert plays with a lot of props — his broom, his paint set — you need to be able to control the prop, not let the prop control you.”
While auditioning, the English casting director asked to him to dance around like he had a kite in his hand. “Lord knows what they were looking for,” the performer says, “but I guess that they saw what they needed with my interpretive dance.”
When the role of Bert came open six months into his tenure, O’Shea-Creal got the job. He mastered the wall climb in two weeks, but found the real learning curve when dealing with the crowd. “Bert doesn’t have the fourth wall. He talks directly to the audience. I’d been doing song-and-dance man roles for my career, so that’s a test for me every night, to get all the information out there for the audience and help guide them along the way.”
The Poppins character might be “practically perfect in every way” as the script says, but O’Shea-Creal’s cheerful Cockney is the narrative glue that holds the story together. “Bert always uses that little chunk of ‘Chim Chim Cher-ee,’ it’s like his theme song, but he has to sing it slightly differently each time, based on the scenes he has to introduce. That’s something that I’m constantly working with. Can I color these words differently, or better than I’ve done before?”
As much as he enjoys the spectacle of “Step in Time,” he also treasures his number with the stern but softening Mr. Banks, “A Man Has Dreams/A Spoonful of Sugar.”
“What I love about Bert is not just what he says, but when he appears. He always shows up at some point around Mr. Banks. It’s like Mr. Banks is Bert’s test: How do I make this man realize what he needs, which is to show his children more love, maybe more love than he was shown a child. And I sing ‘A Spoonful of Sugar’ to him, the ‘sugar’ being love and the ‘medicine’ being the struggles of life.”
Perhaps the most demanding aspect of the show for O’Shea-Creal is the transition from the grand showmanship of “Step in Time” to the subsequent scene’s quiet, emotional exchange. It’s a span of about 90 seconds.
“I have to get offstage, take off my tap shoes, have a drink of water and catch my breath so I can do the scene with Mr. Banks right,” he says
That requires a magic all its own.
Atlanta-based film and theater critic Curt Holman has won awards for his critical writing from the Association of Alternative Newsmedia and the Society of Professional Journalists. In 2005, he was a National Endowment for the Arts fellow in theater and musical theater.