Holiday production of 'Mary Poppins' will highlight the best of city and university

The magical nanny drops in on Central New York for the holidays, and families can see the beloved musical from Nov. 26 to Jan. 8.

Twenty current Syracuse University students join experienced performers for the holiday production of Mary Poppins at Syracuse Stage.

“It’s a big production,” said Joseph Whelan, Syracuse Stage’s assistant marketing director. “It has a big cast. Mary Poppins flies. Bert does a dance at the top of the proscenium. It’s a big musical with big production numbers.”

Mary Poppins will be the only show this season at Syracuse Stage where student actors from SU Drama are used in full-time roles, and cast members are actively recruited from the university. Professional performers Emily Brockway and Jonathan Burke round out the cast as Mary Poppins and Bert, respectively.

The partnership has brought together SU's Department of Drama and Syracuse Stage for over 40 years, Whelan said, and most theater employees hold some role in the drama department.

Choreographer director for Mary Poppins, Anthony Salatino, a professor in the College of Visual and Performing Arts, has been involved in Syracuse Stage and SU Drama productions since 1992. He has also done choreography for numerous shows in Syracuse, as well as Broadway and off-Broadway productions.

Salatino said his goal in choreographing the show was to analyze each of the show’s characters’ personalities into movements. He found himself working around challenges, like the venue’s limited stage space compared to a Broadway theater, and working to group dancers’ efficiently while retaining the spirit of the original show.

What drew him most to the story of Mary Poppins, he said, was the show’s timeless, fantastical story.

“The special part of the production is the storytelling that is full of realism as well as fantasy,” Salatino said. “It’s the story of a fractured family that is saved by the interaction of Mary Poppins.”

A unique aspect of the show’s upcoming run at Syracuse Stage is a performance that will be a first for the venue: a “sensory-friendly” production. Intended for theatergoers on the Autism spectrum or with other sensory sensitivities, this Jan. 7 performance features reduced stage lighting, quieter sound effects, and other accommodations to ensure an inclusionary environment for children and adults with more specialized needs.

According to Whelan, the idea was first pitched by Syracuse Stage’s assistant director of education Kate Laissle, and will be evaluated during this first show for possibilities in future productions as well.

“The normal expectations of how you expect an audience to behave will be set aside for that performance,” Whelan said. “Not a lot of the performance will be changed, but rather, the environment will be changed. How we tackle it for future shows will be understood going forward.”

Stephanie Burnham, a box office assistant at Syracuse Stage and a junior at SU, said the show’s ticket sales so far have been “on par” with past shows at the theater.

Most of the weekend matinee show times are sold out already, according to Burnham, and the opening night show on Saturday was sold out as well.

“It sold pretty fast,” Burnham said about the opening night show.

She also noted that the family-friendly nature of the show has likely attracted much of the audience coming to see this musical theatrical performance.

“Most ticket orders I've had have been in large quantities,” Burnham said. “Mostly, a lot of parents and grandparents have been buying for their children and grandchildren.”

This could be that, as Whelan noted, the core of the story — a family operating under economic stresses and looking for hope to come their way — holds a lot of weight in today’s especially distressed, uncertain environment.

“This is really a story about a family under stress,” he said. “Particularly today, people can really identify under that.”

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