Mary Poppins Monday: Q&A with Elizabeth DeRosa

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Elizabeth DeRosa (Mary Poppins). Photo by John David Pittman.

A new production is getting underway– Mary Poppins– and that means a brand-new blog series highlighting the various aspects of the show!

Our Dramaturg Robert Neblett had a chance to talk with Elizabeth DeRosa, who will be playing Mary Poppins on The Rep stage, about her preparation on her role, the importance of the story and the magic that Mary Poppins brings to all of our lives.

Here is what she had to say:

Q: How did you feel when you heard that you would be playing Mary Poppins in this production in Little Rock?

A: Well, I was excited, of course! I had heard lovely things about Arkansas Repertory Theatre. I couldn’t wait to meet The Rep family and get started. Mary Poppins is an iconic, demanding, vocally challenging, thrilling and wonderful role! She is a confident and other worldly woman who will not be ignored. She commands respect. She is loved and feared. She is one of the greatest female roles ever written for musical theatre and I am honored to be introducing my version of this character to the Mid-South!

Q: How do you approach an iconic role like this, which many audience members may not only be familiar with but have a deep emotional attachment for, based on Julie Andrews cinematic portrayal? As an actor, do you start from scratch and create your own character or are there moments of homage to Andrews performance in how you bring Mary Poppins to life?

A: I think, as actors, we are always beginning with a fresh palate. If I have learned anything in my 10 years working professionally, its that when I do get cast, it is for being MYSELF playing a role, my purely unique version of it. I think this holds true whether a role is iconic or brand new. It is one thing to honor a legendary actor’s portrayal and to layer that as a basis of who a character is, but if I simply parroted Julie Andrews’ performance I wouldn’t come across as genuine and authentic, i.e., as Mary Poppins!

Q: In the books by P. L. Travers, Mary Poppins can be described as more stern and aloof and less likable than the on-screen version presented by Julie Andrews. Does your portrayal of Mary Poppins borrow any of the original creation from the books?

A: I love P. L. Travers’ books. I have read all of them multiple times. The woman and her books are absolutely one of a kind! (Have you read her bio? Its awesome.) When Disney Theatricals and Cameron Mackintosh decided to create the stage version of the musical, P. L. Travers played a more vital role. This is why “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious,” the park in “Jolly Holiday,” Miss Andrew, etc., are more closely matching the scenes/lessons from the books. Well, P. L. Travers changed the course of my life (obviously a multitude of other’s lives as well). So, I can tell you for this reason, with absolute certainty, not to mention she is brilliant, that my portrayal of Mary Poppins honors her creation. (Which is a British sensibility that can be lost in translation, if not approached delicately.) That said, of course we have the Disney movie that everyone knows and loves. So, I am also very aware of what an audience is expecting and hoping to see! (This isn’t all about me???) Lastly, I must also honor my director’s vision and cannot wait to find out what Donna’s is…then blend this all together for the Rep!

Q: What would you say to prepare audience members for this production? There are many moments and songs from the film that do not transfer to the stage version, as well as many added plot points (especially in the second act) that may seem unfamiliar. Should they leave their expectations at the door, particularly since this is a live play and not a movie?

A: I think you answered this question in the question! Yes, come for what you love and what you want your family to experience, a live production of a kid friendly musical…not to see the movie. You won’t see the movie, but, your family will be thrilled by our story telling. I can promise you that! Children need not be familiarized (although that CAN be more fun for them sometimes.) Children will watch and listen and be mesmerized by this story. Adults will be amazed at how closely they may identify with it! It is poignant and gripping for all ages.

Q: Describe an average day of rehearsal for this production.

A: An average day of rehearsal will include working with Helen Gregory, our musical director, to learn music. We may then move on to choreography with Rhonda Miller. The ensemble will often stay with Rhonda to learn the intricate dance steps and shapes of a large production number, i.e., “Jolly Holiday,” “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious,” “Step in Time.” During which time, the principal characters of our story will do scene work, learning blocking with Donna. The Rep has two rehearsal spaces which makes this possible! Each day a few actors will have costume and wig fittings sprinkled throughout the schedule as well. We work quickly and efficiently. Actors are responsible for writing down what we’ve learned and making sure it is in our bodies the next time we approach that part of the play in rehearsal. It’s a very large musical and we must always be moving forward!

Q: How do you strive to become practically perfect in every way, both onstage in this role and in your everyday life?

A: In my personal life I am always striving to be a kind, honest, loving and generous person with a positive outlook. I am also a healthy and fit person. I honor my body, mind and spirit by eating healthily and exercising daily. I treasure my life and the people in it as the gifts that they are. I know how to have fun and when are the appropriate times to do so. On stage I listen, watch and do. I am laser focused, knowing that we often have a limited amount of time to learn each section. I do my very best to immediately catch the choreography. Then I go home and drill it to perfection, so it is “in” my body. I always memorize exactly what the author wrote, never paraphrasing. I am kind to the children & cast as we work, but also serious and always lead by example.

Q: Is there any moment of the musical that means more to you on a personal level than any others?

A: I adore “Feed The Birds.” The song itself is stunningly crafted and beautiful. Apparently it was Walt Disney’s favorite song and he would ask the Sherman brothers to play it for him frequently! This moment/lesson in the show means so much to me when I play the role of Mary. The respect and care with which she treats all beings on Earth is a something I often have to remind myself to employ. We are all equal, valuable and worthy…if we can only remember to pause and see the beauty in everything, we would all be that much more peaceful and content.

Q: What is the most difficult moment to play in the show?

Madison Stolzer (Michael) and Elizabeth DeRosa (Mary Poppins). Photo by John David Pittman.

Madison Stolzer (Michael) and Elizabeth DeRosa (Mary Poppins). Photo by John David Pittman.

A: The most physically difficult moment to play in the show is “Step in Time. It’s a very long song, with intense choreography and staging. The cast must always be in sync as production numbers like this, with large set pieces and difficult choreography can be dangerous if not approached with caution and focus. The most difficult moment to play in the show, as an actor, is probably the relationship between Mary & Bert. What they have….what they are…what they could be…what they can’t be… And of course the answers to these questions are different depending on the director as well as the two actors playing Mary & Bert. It’s the “juiciest” part of playing Mary Poppins and I look forward to figuring this out for our production.

Q: This is a story about magic, the magic of the imagination, the magic of a kind gesture, the magic of dreams. Does that magic share anything in common with the magic of the live theatre?

A: I think this is a very personal question. For a woman who grew up loving theatre and great performances, the magic definitely translates for me. Then, I’ve always believed the theatre is a magical place. When I walk in, I am taken over by a sense of mystery, wonder and awe about what is happening, what could happen and what is about to happen!

Q: Without giving away any of the behind the scenes magic, describe the sensation of being given the opportunity to fly as Mary Poppins.

A: Flying as Mary is the most relaxed and peaceful moment of the show for me. There is no singing, no dancing, no changing costumes, just flying! It’s wonderful. I like the sensation of flying and the power I feel as I arrive and leave. This sense of strength and supernatural magic is very engaging for me as an actor. It helps me to realize and “wear” my role while giving the audience a visual of just how enchanted the character of Mary Poppins truly is.

Q: Did you have a Mary Poppins in your life? Who was it and what was their impact on who you have become as an adult?

A: I didn’t have a Mary Poppins in my life. I never had a nanny and my only babysitter was my Grandmother, from time to time. My example of how to be a grown up came from my amazing parents. They were there at every twist and turn, guiding me, supporting me, cherishing me, believing in me and loving me. I actually became a Mary Poppins! I started babysitting in my neighborhood at age 12. I babysat on the weekends, on & off, all through out middle school and high school. After graduating from college and moving to the city to “pound the pavement,” I became a nanny! I stayed with the first family I worked for, for 2 & a half years. I auditioned and did a few theatre jobs here and there. But I was with them for the entire beginning of my career. That job supported me while I was laying the foundation for my acting career! I absolutely fell in love with the children (a boy & girl). We all got very close and although we knew it was inevitable, it was still very difficult to say goodbye. After I came back to the city from doing a National Tour, I was with another family. I had to say goodbye to this little boy, after 9 months, to go do Mary Poppins on Broadway. As I began to learn the role of Mary, I was so touched by these little faces from my past. They are always there in my mind, giving an authenticity to my performance that is invaluable and that I could never repay them for. When I began to go on for the role of Mary on Broadway ALL of the children I had babysat for, and many of their friends and families, came to see me. I am speechless to this day about how that made me feel. I also have 7 nieces and nephews who I am with as often as possible and love very deeply. It’s all so appropriate. Sometimes I like to think, I truly am Mary Poppins. As a caregiver I am never too stern, but I suffer no nonsense. I am honest and kind. I am clean, sensible and full of energy. Of course, I also play all sorts of games!

Pulled from the Mary Poppins study guide, prepared by Robert Neblett.

Check back every Monday to uncover a new aspect of this magical production and get your tickets to our biggest show ever by calling the Box Office at (501) 378-0405 or visiting TheRep.org!

Elfie Tuesday: Q&A with Ethan Paulini, Buddy the Elf

With Elf The Musical taking the Arkansas Repertory Theatre stage, we are penning a new short series called “Elfie Tuesday” every Tuesday throughout its run.
Actor Ethan Paulini is performing the role as Buddy the Elf in The Rep’s production of Elf. Our Dramaturg Robert Neblett took a few moments to ask him some questions about the show and his role of playing the loveable character, which can also be found in our special study guide for the production here.
Photo by John David Pittman

Photo by John David Pittman

Why do you think Elf (the film) has become such a contemporary holiday classic?

Every generation seems to have a classic Christmas film. Films like It’s a Wonderful Life, A Christmas Story and now Elf. I think Elf came out at a time when people wanted to laugh. The idea of family and togetherness is a common theme for the holiday season, but I think that combined with the out and out, over-the-top comedy of Elf really resonated with audiences. Laughing makes people feel good and people want to feel good at Christmas.

How would you describe the biggest differences between the film and the musical version of Elf?

Well, singing and dancing for one thing. There are slight variations in the story to support a musical number or a slightly modified comedic bit. The original story is there and many iconic moments are represented on stage, but it also explores the relationships between these characters slightly differently, especially the family. They all have a different experience while trying to accept this 30-year-old, 6’2” tall grown-up who thinks he is one of Santa’s elves.

What do you think the ultimate message of the piece is?

There is a lyric in the song “The Story of Buddy the Elf” that I sing with my father – “maybe the point of the story is it’s never too late to grow.” The beauty of this line is that I don’t think it means growing in a traditional sense. I think it is more about that willingness to change and evolve as a person. Buddy doesn’t apologize for who he is and rather than caving in to the pressures to conform, he makes others rediscover the child inside them. He pushes them to in many ways be themselves.

Is there a little bit of Buddy in you?

Absolutely. I would like to hope I am a bit more mature and aware, but I do like to think I have maintained some of the youthful optimism that Buddy has in spades.

How do you prepare for a role like Buddy? What do you hope to bring to it that no one else can?

I think this is a role, more than some others, that is about building up my stamina. I am onstage for virtually the entire show, so for me it’s about staying healthy. I have been exercising, trying to eat right and get plenty of sleep. As far as the actual role, of course, I watched the movie. I definitely want to make Buddy my own so I am trying to find a way to bring what Will Ferrell brought initially but I also want to put my own stamp on the role. One of the great things about Arkansas Repertory Theatre is that they aren’t interested in carbon copies or replicating a particular production or movie, so that gives me the freedom to bring all of my own ideas about who Buddy is and where is comedy comes from. I hope to bring a sense of authenticity to him. The comedy comes from his earnestness, he doesn’t try to be or even realize he is being funny, and I like to think as a comedic actor that is something I understand and do well.

You’ve played many roles onstage at The Rep. Do you have any favorites? How would you describe Little Rock audiences, compared to other audiences around the country?

This is the toughest question. I have loved them all for different reasons. I gained a lot from each and every experience in both personal and professional ways. I suppose The Full Monty will always hold a special place for me since it was my first show here. The rehearsal process for my most recent show, Compleat Wks of Wllm Shkspr ABRIDGED was special because the process was so personal. Nicole Capri (our director, and the director of Elf) really allowed us and encouraged us to bring ourselves to the characters. That is not only so rare, but also makes it a lot of fun. For me, I guess each experience boils down to the people and each show has provided me the opportunity to work with such remarkable collaborators that it is nearly impossible to narrow it down to just a couple of memorable moments. The audiences here are so generous. It takes a lot of energy to get out there and do this sort of work and the audiences here give it back. It makes it that much more rewarding for us to do our jobs.

How do you think Little Rock audiences will respond to this show? What do you think will surprise them about the musical?

I think they will LOVE the show. It’s bright, shiny and happy. But I think the surprise will be how touching this story and these characters are. Of course they will come in expecting to laugh but I think they will leave feeling warmer and perhaps a bit more nostalgic than they expected.

What was your favorite Christmas movie or television program when you were growing up and why?

Well, I used to countdown the minutes until Frosty and Rudolph and all of those great television specials that would come on during Christmas. But without a doubt, A Christmas Story is not only my favorite Christmas movie, but one of my very favorite movies. When it is on for 24 hours on Christmas, I generally average 3 or 4 viewings. I just find that family so warm. I really feel like it captures that childlike excitement that occurs during the whole holiday season. It didn’t sugarcoat it, either. It showed those characters as flawed and funny and human and totally lovable.

What is it like performing away from home on Christmas? Do your fellow actors become your family on occasions like that?

There are so many people here in Little Rock who are like my family that it feels surprisingly natural. I have worked with Mark, our musical director, Marisa our dance captain, and Nicole, our director, on several occasions and I count them among my best friends in the world. Beyond that, Little Rock has always been so welcoming to me that there are many people who I consider family here. When you work in this business, you have to instantly accept people as an integral part of your life very quickly. That also tends to create a familial dynamic. In this show, I have worked with many of the actors before both here in Little Rock and around the country. In addition, I am a career and acting coach and I even have three clients in the cast. I am also fortunate to have my dad, sister and niece and nephews coming to see the show just before Christmas.

What do you want Santa to bring you this Christmas?

Continued success and challenging and rewarding collaborations, health for me and my family and friends and the strength to follow my path wherever it may lead me….and if he has an extra iPhone 6 laying around, I’d take it off his hands.

All remaining shows of Elf are sold out but there are 10 Standing Room Only seats at $40 apiece for each performance. Just stop by the Box Office an hour before showtime to receive a voucher! Call (501) 378-0405 for more information.

Pulled from Elf study guide, prepared by Robert Neblett.

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