In The Pipeline: A bit of magic is just a small drive away

As I described a couple of weeks ago, this summer I'd like to focus occasionally on local events and places that might make good, simple, affordable escapes for you and your families.

You may have heard that the acclaimed Disney and Cameron Mackintosh production of "Mary Poppins" recently landed at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa.

When Australian novelist P.L. Travers wrote her series of books about the charming and mystical nanny (made even more famous on film by Julie Andrews in 1964), I'm not sure she could have envisioned the production that takes place each evening (and several matinees).

My daughter and I had the pleasure of enjoying the opening-night performance, and while it hearkens back to the nearly inescapable charm of the film version most of us saw as kids (as my mom reminded me, actually the first movie I ever saw in a theater), this production takes the story into both new thematic and technical directions that are as emotionally satisfying as they are visually impressive.

Without revealing too much, this is now a musical that, while still appealing obviously to children, has several adult themes layered in that give it a new weight, meaning and seriousness of purpose. As well, the actual production, in addition to a sparkling array of well-honed numbers, includes several sleight-of-hand performances that literally defy gravity — things you almost have to see to believe.

Last week, I took a backstage tour to get an up-close sense of just what it takes to both perform and deliver this show on a nightly basis.

Canadian-born Laird Mackintosh, who plays George Banks, father of Jane and Michael, has been with the show since the beginning — almost two and a half years and nearing 1,000 performances, including a three-month stint on Broadway.

"It's the most fun I've ever had, a dream come true," he said in his dressing room several hours before a recent evening show. "The beauty is, even after all these shows, we never go on autopilot. Each night we find some new bit of magic in the moments. And this show is at no loss for 'moments.' It's a show for families, for adults just as much as kids."

As for one of his favorite scenes, Mackintosh explained, "There's a beautiful scene I play with Bert — the gingerbread stars scene. It's a moment where my character has an 'a-ha' discovery — when he finds these gingerbread stars he'd hidden as a child — and lost, he thought, forever. It's full of beautiful metaphors, including the man rediscovering the little boy in his heart — and there's a beautiful song, too. I look forward to the whole show every night — but that scene, it's just a remarkable joy to perform."

Out on the darkened stage, surrounded by gigantic, complex set pieces, veteran Production Stage Manager Jimmie Lee Smith walked me through some of the more elaborate "pieces of magic," as he called them (this is Disney, after all, so the M-word flows naturally in many conversations).

Does he ever get nervous each night when it comes time to pull off some of the more elaborate moves?

"A little," Smith chuckled. "I mean, it is all so well-oiled. Still, I hold my breath a bit. We're doing some things here that have never really been done before."

Some production facts:

•The Banks house weighs 11,000 pounds.

•It takes 14 trucks to move the show from city to city.

•The show uses 175 moving lights, 576 dimmers and 270 lighting cues.

Smith also marveled at the physical stamina the actors must exhibit.

"It's such an extremely physical show," he said. "The actors and actresses are in the gym for hours each day. The audience doesn't see a lot of what they go through in getting ready to hit marks, but from trap doors to little elevators, they're constantly challenged, physically as well as musically, in this show. This cast is remarkable."

For Wardrobe Superior John Furrow, the "magic" may lie in the fact that his team spends four hours a day just pressing and steaming clothes and repairing shoes — and does laundry, eight hours every day, 10 hours on weekends!

Furrow has designed an ingenious system backstage of getting the dozens of actors costumed each night, overseeing literally hundreds of racks of elaborate period piece outfits and a set of "Starlighter" costumes that each feature more than 800 hand-sewn crystal stars. Downstairs, in the bowels of the theater, several "triage" rooms are set up, exploding with sewing machines, racks of supplies, makeup cases, vaudeville trunks bursting with shirts, skirts, suits — it is overwhelming.

Yet, it works. Each performance, it works.

The thousands of details fall into place, the lights go down, and audiences are transported to a place that reaches, as the song says, "up to the highest height — up through the atmosphere — up where the air is clear."

Where magic is found.

"Mary Poppins" runs at Segerstrom Center for the Arts until Aug. 7. For ticket information, call (714) 556-2787.

CHRIS EPTING is the author of 18 books, including the new "Hello, It's Me: Dispatches from a Pop Culture Junkie." You can write him at

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