Meet the Queen of ‘Mary Poppins’…and more stars, large and small, from MPAC’s latest hit

'Queen Victoria' Fanning, after 'Mary Poppins' premiere. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
'Queen Victoria' Fanning, after 'Mary Poppins' premiere. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Mary Poppins (Sandy Taylor) takes to the sky at MPAC. Photo by Anne Van Druff
Mary Poppins (Sandy Taylor) takes to the sky at MPAC. Photo by Anne Van Druff

By Kevin Coughlin

Queen Victoria plays a very small role in this weekend’s lavish production of Mary Poppins at the Mayo Performing Arts Center.

But the actress who portrays her, Victoria Fanning, feels like royalty.

'Queen Victoria' Fanning, after 'Mary Poppins' premiere. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
‘Queen Victoria’ Fanning, after ‘Mary Poppins’ premiere. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

For the last few months, the Morristown High School sophomore has led a charmed life, rehearsing and appearing in two spectacular shows, learning from a pair of dynamic directors.

She was the exuberant Jester in the MHS spring production of Once Upon a Mattress, led by the school’s energized new director, Michael Maguire.

And this weekend she takes her regal walk in the park, and sings in the ensemble, in Poppins for Cathy Roy, whose fourth MPAC musical has raised the bar yet again.

Everything about this $125,000, 53-cast-member production soars–from Mary (Sandy Taylor) and Bert (Justin Anthony Long), who reach new heights with help from invisible wires,  to Kevin Lynch’s assured musical direction and a dizzying swirl of sets and costumes.

Mary Poppins

 A few seats are left for today,

Saturday, June 4, 2016, at 2 pm and 7:30 pm,

and Sunday, June 5, at 2 pm.

Tickets: $20-$25.

At 100 South St. in Morristown. Call 973-539-8008.

“I’m so lucky to be in an area with such great programs in the school and the community,” said Fanning, who appears in Poppins with fellow Morristown High thespians Bailey McGuinn and Anna Skelton. They all got big hugs from Maguire after Friday’s show.

Mattress, an ambitious production on a smaller scale, felt “more intimate,” Fanning said.

Poppins “feels like a Broadway production. It’s incredible.”

Both directors have been accommodating with scheduling, she said.

Victoria Fanning in the Spring 2016 MHS production of 'Once Upon a Mattress.' Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Victoria Fanning in the Spring 2016 MHS production of ‘Once Upon a Mattress.’ Photo by Kevin Coughlin

“They both care so much about every single person in the cast…They get it. They understand. This is what I want to do for the rest of my life,” said Fanning, who somehow finds time to sing at hospitals and nursing homes with other students from the Mayo Center’s Performing Arts Company.  She will spend five weeks studying in Boston University’s theater program this summer.

Roy said she tries to be as sensitive as possible to schedules of her young cast, who range from age 9 to 23 and are unpaid with the exception of her co-stars, who are Equity actors and the only cast members over 30.

The Poppins cast has been rehearsing three times a week since March; over the Memorial Day weekend, everyone spent all of Saturday and Sunday on stage.

On the final dress rehearsal before Friday’s opening night, Roy even gave one cast member the night off so he could attend his prom. She was confident that Justin Chimoff (who plays Northbrook) knew his stuff; he has performed for Michelle Obama at the White House alongside Gloria Estefan.

Fanning credited directors Roy and Maguire with imparting a crucial lesson that she has taken to heart:

“Everyone says: ‘Go out and have a blast!'”

Slideshow: ‘Mary Poppins’ opening night reception

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Flying…and Letting Go

What goes through your mind when you’re dangling on metal wires 20 feet above the stage on opening night?

“I was looking at the lights, and completely reminded how thankful I should be for all of this,” said Sandy Taylor, who made the complex title role — singing, acting and flying, with lots of costume changes in between– look easy.

The hardest part, Taylor said at an MPAC reception, after an opening performance that brought the crowd to its feet, was learning to let go.

Not of the wires — they were safely attached for her four aerial sequences.  But rather, simply trusting everyone, from the technicians who got her airborne, to the prop masters who supplied her magic tricks, to the five people who dressed her with the speed of an Indy pit crew between scenes.

“As an actor you always want to be in control,” Taylor said. “I finally had to just let that go.”

Opening Night Improv

With so many moving parts, Mary Poppins would not seem like an ideal place to experiment on opening night.

But co-star Justin Anthony Long, who gives the show its heart as Bert, the affable chimney sweep, said a last-minute transition was added after the show-stopping Supercalifragistic number.  It required him to come back on stage for some solo hoofing.

“So I made up a dance and left,” said Long, who planned to cook up something more elaborate for Saturday’s show.

MPAC fans will remember his leading role in Joseph & The Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, the theater’s first self-produced musical, in 2013.

Joseph was more of a singing show. Bert is more of a song-and-dance man,” said Long, 31, who returned from Los Angeles for Poppins as a nod to director Cathy Roy, who directed him as a 15-year-old in his native Bergen County, at the former John Harms Center (now the Bergen County Performing Arts Center).

Bert is a strenuous role. How will Long get ramped up for two shows on Saturday?

“A lot of coffee and coconut water!” he said.

Co-star Sandy Taylor (Mary Poppins) said she’ll draw from her days as a competitive softball player, when tournaments packed several games into a weekend.

“You learn how to turn the adrenaline on and off,” Taylor said.

Playing Against Type

One of the biggest surprises from the after-party was meeting the 40-something Mr. Banks, whose mustachioed, gruff indifference to his children, Jane and Michael, drives the plot of Mary Poppins.

The surprise: Joshua Berg is a Bernards High School freshman for whom a real mustache would seem a tall order.

How does he manage to portray a stodgy old bank manager so convincingly?

“It’s pretty challenging,” Berg acknowledged. “But you’ve always got to come up to your role. I realized I could really relate to my character, just to the journey that he takes, going from a stiff guy to a loving father.”

Likewise, Alexandra Russo must have a secret stash of nasty pills to play Miss Andrew, a battle-ax nanny who is the show’s most despicable character.

“It’s fun to be in that role–she’s the complete opposite of who I am,” said the giggly Russo, a freshman at Rider University.

‘Little Sponges’

The show’s tiniest star, 9-year-old Aidan Alberto of Roseland, gets some of the biggest laughs as Michael. He and older sister Jane, played by 13-year-old Sarah Rappaport of Westfield,  terrorize a series of hapless nannies until they meet their match in Mary Poppins.

Aidan couldn’t make the after-party; the fourth-grader had to get home to bed.

Sarah was beaming like a 1,000-watt bulb, collecting cast autographs on her Playbill and eagerly posing for pictures.

“It was really fun!” she said of her first MPAC show.

Sandy Taylor praised the kids for their “wide-eyed, honest reactions.”  Director Cathy Roy said natural, non-Hollywood, performances were exactly what she was looking for from the youngsters.

“They’re like little sponges,” soaking up information, said Roy. “They’re amazing to work with.”

That’s not to say there weren’t some anxious moments. Imagine a $125,000 production riding on actors who still need allowances to buy an ice cream cone. Roy coached them right up until Friday’s opening curtain:

Remember, it’s a journey… don’t tell the whole story right away…stay in the moment…

“I just reminded them that it’s about them, it’s their story,” said Roy. “I’m so proud of them.”

For My Next Act…

So how will Cathy Roy top Mary Poppins next year?  A musical adaptation of Moby DickHamilton?

Spider-Man?” she joked.

At least, we think she was joking.  Kids, maybe you should start taking flying lessons…


Slideshow: Mary Poppins at MPAC

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