'Mary Poppins' soars into Naperville North

By Ann Piccininni
Daily Herald correspondent
Updated 4/21/2017 8:19 AM
  • Naperville North High School students will present "Mary Poppins" in a series of performances next week.

    Naperville North High School students will present "Mary Poppins" in a series of performances next week. Courtesy of Naperville North High School

This article was updated to correct the spelling of a cast member's name.

The power to find magic in the ordinary sweeps into the Banks' family home when Mary Poppins arrives on a gust of wind.

At Naperville North High School, that arrival will be re-created with the help of technology and an able student cast and crew when "Mary Poppins" opens Wednesday, April 26, for a six-performance run that concludes with a Sunday matinee April 30.

Senior Anabella Oddo, playing the title role, will be harnessed into a sophisticated, theatrical special effects "fly" system, entering from high atop the audience in the back of the theater before she lands at the Banks' doorstep on stage.

It's a perspective Oddo, who has been performing in Naperville North shows since her freshman year, hasn't experienced before.

"Never in a show, I've never flown," she said. "It's nerve-wracking to see every seat in the house at that angle."

On the plus side, being airborne helps her get into character.

"When I flew for the first time, it was like, 'I am Mary Poppins!'" she said.

Apart from the flying and the British accent she assumes, Oddo said playing the part poses other challenges, including a temporary shift in personality due to the nanny's unflappable calm and penchant for proper etiquette.

"It's definitely a special role to play. She's practically perfect," Oddo said. "I'm messy, I'm a regular person."

The stage show, based on the book series by P.L. Travers, closely mirrors the 1964 movie starring Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke, said Nick Janssen, the high school's musical director and fine arts instructional coordinator.

"All of the iconic pieces of the movie are present," he said.

That includes tap-dancing chimney sweeps and, of course, characters who seemingly levitate.

"Four different students fly during the production," said Janssen, the faculty adviser supervising the student show.

Two chimney sweeps perform midair gymnastic flips, he said.

Others in the student cast include Michael Winner as Bert, Nathan Biggs as George Banks, Nora Snyder as Winifred Banks, Michael Semanic as Michael Banks and Tessa Newman as Jane Banks.

In all, the ensemble production features 80 cast members and 50 students who contribute tech crew duties, costuming, props and scenery, in addition to the live orchestra musicians.

Last year, the school presented the musical "Grease," a show that also required plenty of personnel.

"We usually have large casts for the spring musical," Janssen said.

Coordinating the efforts of so many is just one of the challenges of staging "Mary Poppins," he said.

The entire show, he said, is underscored with music.

"The orchestra music is extremely difficult. Even the dialogue and the acting has musical cues," he said. "There's never a break from music for more than a minute."

The audience gets taken to several scenes set in 1910 London, including the exterior of the Banks' home, the nursery, the bedroom and the rooftops. Costumes and scenery architecture are based on the Edwardian styles in vogue at the start of the 20th century, he said.

"We have a very elaborate production. Just the scale: everything is above average for a high school," he said.

Oddo said she appreciates Janssen's leadership and commitment to the school's arts programs. "He's very creative and passionate about theater," she said.

Oddo said she is grateful to Naperville North for the theater opportunities she's experienced during her high school years.

After beginning her theater career with small ensemble parts, she played the lead in last year's production of "9 to 5."

The role of Mary Poppins is demanding, she said. "There are a lot of lines, a lot of songs."

Through music, the story tracks the emotional journey of the Banks' family as Mary touches their lives and hearts. "She kind of takes them through situations," she said. "She teaches them to look past what you see. She doesn't just touch the children, she touches the father. (At the outset), the father is very closed off and bitter."

The show closes when, just as suddenly and mysteriously as she appeared, Mary Poppins departs, leaving the Banks family transformed. Oddo said the mixed feelings provoked by having to move on, as exemplified in the show, is mirrored in her own life as a soon-to-graduate senior.

"Theater has been such a great love for me," she said. "I definitely hold this show very close to my heart."

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