by Colin Murphy
July 16th, 2009

Justin Keyes
The world’s most famous nanny floats into town Aug. 13-30 to take charge of the Fabulous Fox as Disney and Cameron Mackintosh’s Mary Poppins makes its Gateway City debut.

The national tour features Ashley Brown and Gavin Lee reprising their original Broadway roles of “Mary Poppins” and “Bert,” respectively.

The classic P.L. Travers’ book turned 1964 film has been a long-time coming to the stage but as Poppins herself might say, “good things come to those who wait.” Mary Poppins took London’s West End by storm before opening on Broadway on November 16, 2006. There, it has consistently been among the top-grossing shows.

The story of the whimsical nanny who magically appears to help out a family in Edwardian London is a timeless tale and finds new life on stage by taking the best elements from the classic film and marrying them to the truest interpretation of the children’s books.

Mary Poppins is the collaborative effort of the award winning team headed by director, Richard Eyre with co-direction and choreography by Matthew Bourne. The stage production features the Academy Award-winning music and lyrics of Richard M. Sherman and Robert M. Sherman; book by screenwriter, Julian Fellowes, and new songs and additional music and lyrics by the celebrated team of George Stiles and Anthony Drewe.

The Vital VOICE recently caught up with out actor, dancer and singer Justin Keyes on tour with Mary Poppins in Chicago. As part of the ensemble cast, he offers a keen perspective on the tour, comparing the film to the stage show, and how audiences are receiving the new musical.

Colin Murphy: How are you enjoying the tour so far?

Justin Keyes: I’m enjoying it a lot actually. We’re a big hit and that’s always a good thing. You can’t really beat that. Everyone’s been really responsive and it’s been selling out the past few weeks here. The last week of June has been pretty packed so that’s pretty good.

CM: For most people, when you mention Mary Poppins, the classic Disney film and the iconic Julie Andrews come to mind. What are some of your memories of the movie when you saw it?

JK: Originally, when I was little, I remember it being a mix of real people and special effects. I think it came out August 27, 1964, I want to say, and it won an Academy Award. It was actually the Disney movie that I think has won the most Academy Awards. I remember the special effects; the mixture of the cartoon animals with the real people and I remember the music stuck in my head, like “Spoon Full of Sugar,” and “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” which are Sherman brothers songs that are so synonymous with Disney movies. Of course I remember Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke but I remember the tunes sticking in my head and I remember, for the time when it came out in the 1960s, the mixture of the cartoon with the real actors on screen.

CM: Did any of that compel you to audition for the part; obviously being in a Disney stage production is a big deal for an actor?

JK: I think what compelled me to audition for it was all the stuff that Disney Theatricals puts on stage. I don’t want to say they are taking huge risks but in their own right they are pushing the envelope on stage with what they are doing visually a lot of times. They always try to out do themselves visually and even from The Lion King and The Little Mermaid to Mary Poppins I just knew that if I was involved in a production like that it would probably sell, which is something you can’t deny [Laughs]. They’ll probably kill me for saying that. But also they are always ready to push the envelope and put the audience first. They are always ready to do whatever it takes to enhance the story.

CM: The musical is a blend of familiar material from the movie and new numbers, characters and storylines that are taken from the book. Could you talk about that? A majority of people are going to walk into the Fox with the movie in their head.

JK: Sure and I think that is actually the best thing and the best thing that I’ve heard from people who have seen it. It kind of takes the best of the movie and the P.L. Travers novels and puts them together. So it takes the best songs from the movie that everybody knows and in some cases it sets them to new scenarios and it marries them now with the original story which the movie was based on. And I know the writer Pamela Travers; a lot of her characters have now been flushed out for the musical that didn’t appear in the original movie. “Supercal.” is in kind of a different setting in Mrs. Corry’s Sweet Shop. A lot of people who’ve read the book say it’s a little more true to the story. It’s a different take, it’s not as upbeat as the movie musical and there are definitely elements of the book that have found their way into the stage show. I think it’s a little truer to what she originally wanted.

CM: How did you get your start in musical theater?

JK: I always sang and I always danced when I was younger, from probably the sixth grade. I went to a performing arts middle school and started to be introduced to music and dance in the curriculum. And then I went to high school and at first I thought I wanted to be a music major so I sang a little bit more first; then I started to take more dance classes and by the time I was a senior I knew I wanted to something where I could study all three disciplines: dance, acting and singing. So I auditioned for a lot of programs and I ended up at the University of Michigan in their Musical Theater program. And while I was there I ended up staying five years and picking up a Spanish degree in addition to that. So that’s kind of how I got started. I think it was the music that got me and then the movement and then the acting last.

CM: In high school did you have the experience of being the “artistic boy” and being picked on; a lot of theater folks share that experience.

JK: I’m asked a lot about that and I suppose it was typical and I suppose I got some flak for it but I also played sports so I that kind of softened it. I was always the type who since middle school when I performed; I was always one of the few people doing it so people associated me with whatever arts were going on at the school. I was kind of the poster boy for it. And not to toot my own horn, but I was kind of good at it. I was lucky enough to find out what I was meant to do early on and whatever flak or teasing or negative attention I got for it was always outweighed by the positive.

CM: Back to Poppins, I read that they interpreted the animated sequences in the movie through choreography?

JK: They did a lot of it through choreography; even quite a number of “Jolly Holiday” which in the movie has these cartoon characters coming to life. Mary Poppins, she kind of represents youth and magic and she inhabits both worlds; the real world and the fantasy world where the children are allowed to experience it through her. So we kind of do that through choreography and technically through costumes and makeup and lights. They are able to show a lot of that by contrasting movement. So there’s the way that normal people move and there’s the way that fantasy characters move.

CM: Can you talk about the roles you play; you play William and are a member of the ensemble cast?

JK: Sure. We work very hard. I tell people that the ensemble, we run around for three hours non stop. We kind of play a lot of different characters; we serve as the vehicle to show these worlds that the story is happening against. So I start the show as one of the men in society and we’re there to represent the body language and the time of Edwardian London. Then we go to “Jolly Holiday” and I play a statue that comes to life; to show that in a dull and gray world when Mary Poppins brings imagination and brings life everybody comes to life and dances and is young again. William is a doll, William is one of the toys that the children have received as a gift and Mary Poppins brings the toys to life to teach the children to treat others how you want to be treated. Then we all play chimney sweeps in “Step in Time” which kind of represent the guardian angels watching out over the children, which is pretty much explained in the show.

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