The thing to remember about theater people is that they really love what they do.
Even when they complain. They are driven by passion, ego, love of the art form. So much so that they even appear to relish the pressure-cooker environment of warp-speed rehearsals of a technically complicated show.
Which brings us to “Mary Poppins,” Starlight Theatre’s only self-produced musical this summer.
To handle this big show, which opens Friday, Starlight tapped a man with a track record of wrangling sprawling productions and getting them into shape and made fit for public consumption.
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Phil McKinley, after all, is the guy who took over “Spider-Man” on Broadway and transformed it from a troubled show into a slick entertainment. And he’s an old Starlight hand — having directed more than one production of “The Wizard of Oz,” including a memorable version with Phyllis Diller as the Wicked Witch. Last summer he staged “The Sound of Music” with Analisa Leaming as Maria, and this year he’s brought her back to play the title role in “Mary Poppins.”
And, for the record, McKinley has never directed the show before.
“No,” he said with a laugh over lunch one afternoon last week. “And had I, I probably would have said ‘no.’ It’s bigger. It’s hard because it’s really intricate. There’s all this prop stuff that’s going on. You have to incorporate the props. It’s interesting.”
Ah, yes. The props. Umbrellas. Bird cages. Chimney sweep brushes. Much of the action is timed to specific sections of the score, with the orchestra in effect providing sound effects.
And, of course, Mary flies. The plan in fact, is for Leaming to fly over the Starlight audience.
“I have never flown in my life,” said the classically trained soprano. “I am scared of heights. But I like to do things that scare me. Yesterday I got fitted for my harness.”
Donna Thomason, who runs Starlight’s for-profit subsidiary, Epic Innovative Events, is functioning as the producer on “Mary Poppins.” Thomason, an actress and director, knows all about putting on shows at the open-air theater.
“I’ve never produced ‘Mary Poppins’ before either,” she said. “It’s like the blind leading the blind.”
Thomason had begun her day at 7:30 a.m., delivering a report on “Mary Poppins” to the Starlight board.
“I said, ‘Here’s the deal: At 10 o’clock last Monday everyone shook hands and met for the first time. And 11 consecutive days later, they will be standing in front of 6,000 people. And every intricacy, everything that has to be learned, that took eight weeks (on Broadway) …’” Thomason said.
McKinley interjected: “No, eight weeks of rehearsal and probably four weeks of tech.”
Thomason continued: “… and then preview for who knows how long. You condense it into 11 days and you really do get to see everyone’s artistry.… It’s amazing.”
McKinley said the good part is that he’s worked with many of the people involved in the show before. And most of them had done summer stock. So most of them know there will be no time for contemplative chin-stroking or waiting for just the right moment of inspiration.
“They know we have to hit the ground running,” he said. “And I mean running.… It becomes frustrating because you’re a perfectionist and you want everything right the first time out. I told them there were too many years I worked in summer stock, and the first time I even went through the (entire) show was on opening night. And that’s terror.”
One thing you can count on: There will be a complete dress rehearsal tonight before the show opens Friday.
“Of course,” he said. “I just won’t throw the actors out there like that. It’s not right. And the flying — there’s no way I’m going to try flying (for the first time) on opening night.”
Leaming comes directly from the Broadway production of “On the 20th Century.” Also in the cast are Broadway veterans James Hindman (who began his career at Starlight more than 30 years ago) as Mr. Banks, Matthew LaBanca as Bert and Michele Ragusa as Winifred. Ragusa memorably played the Witch in Kansas City Repertory Theatre’s production of “Into the Woods” in 2009.
A number of veteran Kansas City-based actors — Kip Niven, Charles Fugate and Melinda MacDonald, among them — play smaller roles.
McKinley waxes nostalgic when he talks about summer stock. That’s one reason he keeps coming back to Starlight. It connects him to an earlier era. The almost 8,000-seat theater in Swope Park is one of the few outdoor summer theaters left in the country. Another is the Muny in St. Louis, which seats even more than Starlight.
“Here’s what’s great about it,” McKinley said. “Like I told the kids on the first day. There is something really magical about it and it’s disappearing from the fabric of the American theater — these big, open theaters. This and Muny, I think, are the last ones. And there’s something very different about the experience.”
McKinley recalled a time when for two consecutive summers he worked at a traditional summer stock theater. The schedule was much like Starlight in the 1950s.
“We did eight shows in nine weeks,” he said. “So you rehearse the first show the first week, and for the other eight weeks you are playing a show at night and rehearsing a different one during the day. And it is the best training ground for you as a performer. You have to know your stuff and you can’t take five days to think about scene.”
Thomason offered an opinion: If an actor can do summer stock, he or she will be prepared to do anything.
“It sharpens your tool box,” McKinley said. “This is a magical thing. We have a lot of young people and a lot of them have never worked here or worked at the Muny. So they’re getting experience that is very rare in our business. It used to be the summer norm.”