Bringing New Life to a Classic Tale

The Bird Woman (Sophie Regan) singing “Tuppance a Bag”

The kids of Once Upon a Time Theater are at it again, with a staging of “Mary Poppins” currently running in town at the Malibu Playhouse. But this time around, in addition to their skilled creative team, including creative director DeeDee Davidson Porter, they got a little outside guidance from one local expert.

Imagine a concert pianist being tutored by Mozart, or Babe Ruth showing up to your batting practice to help you with your swing. That was very much the experience of this group of talented Malibu kids who got to meet—and receive direction from—living legend Dick Van Dyke, who famously played the role of Bert in the 1964 Disney classic.

The “Mary Poppins” cast had a chance to meet Van Dyke at two rehearsals leading up to their production. 

“It was just so amazing,” Porter told The Malibu Times. “What a gift, what a gem, what a really kind man.”

According to Porter, Van Dyke “watched two whole rehearsals” and really got involved.

“Each time, he gave them notes and encouragement,” Porter recalled. “He actually sang and danced. He’s so amazing.”

Van Dyke may have helped inspire and direct the actors—ranging in age from fourth to ninth grades—but Porter said the children are talented artists in their own right.

“They’re artists and their artform is storytelling,” Porter described. “This is what they do as actors, they’re storytellers.”

“Mary Poppins,” for the few who are not familiar with the story, was originally a children’s book series made famous by the Disney film. It tells the story of a magical nanny who helps mend a dysfunctional family in 1910 London (kids Jane and Michael plus their parents), with help from her friend Bert.

Those in the community who may have seen other Once Upon a Time performances should note one major difference between those and this staging—Mary Poppins is adapted from a live-action story featuring real characters, not fairytale creatures.

“’Mary Poppins’ is different … because plays in the past we’ve done have been fairy tales mostly, like “Aladdin,” “Peter Pan,” “Cinderella”… the difference is that these characters are—the people in the Mary Poppins books are real people, they’re not cartoons,” Porter said, adding, “mostly the kids don’t get to hide behind a cartoony character. They have to be more honest about relationships and who this family is. This broken family that needs help and Mary Poppins comes into their life.”

Porter described one scene that stood out to her, when Jane speaks frankly about their life at home.

“Jane says, ‘I don’t want to be an upside down family,’ and Mary Poppins comes into their lives to teach them the meaning of love and to put family first,” Porter described, “and so all of these kids can relate to that, because busy times when our parents are not always home—and I think that it’s a really great message.”

Porter, who grew up in Malibu and recalls a time before the Malibu Playhouse existed, added that she was grateful to the community and to the Malibu Playhouse for helping stage this production, and the many plays and musicals she has helped present over 16 years.

“When I was a little girl in Malibu, this stuff wasn’t here—there was nothing there but open field and sheep, and to me it was always a magical, magical place, and it continues with that theater there. And I hope it continues,” Porter said.

“Mary Poppins” runs at the Malibu Playhouse on Friday, Saturday and Sunday, March 16-18— with an evening performance on Friday and Saturday at 6 p.m. and matinees on Saturday and Sunday at 2 p.m.