To prepare for a Disney production on Broadway, actors, directors and designers get months upon months of readings and rehearsals. To prepare for Artpark’s annual musical theater production, frequently a Disney production, the cast and crew get 16 days.
This truncated rehearsal period can pose plenty of challenges, from actors struggling to memorize their scripts to the ever-present danger of botched set changes, costume changes and the resulting mood changes. But Randy Kramer, the longtime director of Artpark’s summer shows, said that perennial challenge has become a plus for Artpark’s production of “Mary Poppins,” opening tonight.
“It’s a very different way of working out here, because something gets staged and literally the second time that you do it, you’re off-book,” Kramer said, referring to actors performing the piece without scripts in their hands. “There is no walking around and trying to feel your way through it because you have a four-week rehearsal process. In the past, that could be a liability. But now that we’ve worked this way for a number of years, it’s actually an asset to the production.”
That’s because actors now show up to the first rehearsal with much of their work already completed and with the knowledge that they’ll need to get to the heart of the show and their roles right away.
After years of learning by trial and error, Kramer said he and his cast have it down to a system. On the first Saturday rehearsal in mid-July, the cast ran the entire first act of the show without scripts.
“That might be the first time ever for me that that’s happened,” Kramer said.
Artpark’s production of the family-friendly “Mary Poppins” follows a national tour that came through town in 2010. What remains most vivid in many theatergoers’ memories of that production is most likely the technical wizardry of the show, which featured, among other things, a dance on the ceiling.
That gasp-inducing number, as well as some other extraordinarily complex technical elements from the tour and its even more involved Broadway version, will be absent from Artpark’s take. But Kramer said that the absence of some technical elements, just not possible given the short rehearsal period, will add to the power of the story.
“Personally, I think the story is better if Mary is the only one who flies because she’s the only one that truly has magic in the show,” Kramer said, stressing the production boasts a cast of some 30 actors and a large orchestra.
“Sometimes, Broadway is guilty of overproducing things because they feel like people are paying $100 a ticket, so they’ve got to do this, they’ve got to do that. I don’t think we lose the magic, I don’t think we lose the story. I don’t think it’s any less entertaining the way this is done,” Kramer said.
As usual, Artpark’s production features a mix of local talent with students from Elon University in North Carolina, where frequent Artpark choreographer and former University at Buffalo instructor Lynn Kurziel-Formato teaches. This year’s production is choreographed by Anne Beck, who also worked on last year’s production of “The Sound of Music.”
For leading lady Emilie Renier, who returns to Artpark for the third year in a row after playing the lead in “Cinderella” and “The Sound of Music,” the show provides a rare chance to play a character she’s long admired.
“I can’t remember a time when I didn’t know Mary Poppins. She’s really funny and witty, but it’s a very British, curt sense of humor,” Renier said. “I like that’s she’s smart. It’s hard to find smart women in theater sometimes, and I love that she’s just smarter than everybody and she knows it and loves it.”
Kramer called Renier “a dream to work with” and praised her sense of humor – a necessary survival skill for a hectic, two-week rehearsal. For her part, Reiner said she’s turned the potential stress of the tight rehearsal period and its many challenges into a game, not unlike her character’s attempts to turn household chores into the stuff of fun.
“This show specifically is so choreography-heavy and music-heavy,” Renier said. “It’s a lot to think about. You’re juggling a whole bunch of balls at the same time. But it’s also sort of fun. It’s a little bit of a game.”