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Just the right medicine: ‘Mary Poppins’ a sweet antidote to the past two years.

Poppins Rehearsal.jpg
Kaya Williams
/
Aspen Public Radio
An actor suspended from cables walks on his hands during a rehearsal for Aspen Community Theatre’s musical production of “Mary Poppins” at the Aspen District Theatre. The show runs for two consecutive weekends.

No matter how long your day is or how long the next one looks like it’s going to be, it’s pretty hard not to smile when there are dozens of people tap-dancing on stage and when one of them is attached to cables, flying through the air.

Rita Hunter, who has produced or co-produced more than 50 shows with Aspen Community Theatre, feels that the warmth of “Mary Poppins” lends a lot of meaning to this year’s show. It’s one of the largest that Aspen Community Theatre has ever produced, she said.

“I think the joyful part … is a huge part of it,” she said.

Hunter’s name is nearly synonymous with the organization she has been involved with for more than 40 years.

She sees this cast and crew and community as her family — one that has stepped up to fill her enormous role in the organization after Hunter’s ALS diagnosis in 2019 prompted her to step back.

“I'm just very proud,” she said “I look at a lot of these people as sort of almost like my children. … I don't know how many more shows I'm gonna get to be part of, so this is a nice one to do: Happy, and it says a great story about family and how important it is.”

It hasn’t been an easy couple of years for the performing arts, and Aspen Community Theatre is no exception.  

A pandemic hiatus in 2020 marked the first time the organization had ever gone a year without producing a show since its founding in 1976. The troupe was poised for a comeback last year with a performance of Stephen Sondheim’s “Company” — and very nearly got to closing night until a COVID-19 case in the cast nixed the last couple of shows.

So this year, the organization figured the community could use a bit of levity.

“After the pandemic and everything that's been going on with sort of the darkness in the world, we wanted something a little less dark, and more happy,” lead producer Travis Lane McDiffett said. “There's definitely an uplifting message to be taken from it.”

McDiffett, who is also on the Aspen Community Theatre board, said the stage production is perhaps less “fluffy” than the Disney film — but it’s hardly “doom and gloom.”

Nevertheless, from Mary Poppins’ whimsical tunes to an abundance of tap-dancing, the show still contends with family dynamics that McDiffett said could resonate with people in the Aspen community.

“You know, (there’s) a father that is struggling with his own worth and success in the business world. The mother is challenged with her own feelings about whether or not she's doing the right role within the family,” he said. “And then of course, the kids are just being kids, and not appreciating the nannies that they have, because they really want to spend time with their family, and so Mary comes in and sort of helps them find their way into a better place in their world.”

Ask anyone involved with Aspen Community Theatre to describe their cohort and they’ll use the word family as a metaphor.

McDiffett said some of them are literally related, too.

“We have several families actually in the show, which is pretty remarkable,” he said.

That includes Aspen Community Theatre board member Katriona Hembury and her daughters Cerys and Lowri.

Katriona, who plays Katie Nanna and Valentine, got involved with the Aspen Community Theatre just a few months after she first became a mother about 15 years ago.

“I was at a bit of a loss after having my first baby and giving up the career I had and trying to find my identity as a mother,” she said. “And my parents saw the advert in the paper for auditions, so I auditioned and I did my first show 15 years ago.”

Cerys, now a teenager, and her younger sister, Lowri, are both in the ensemble.

They’re on the younger end of the age spectrum in a cast and crew that span several generations of mostly amateur theater enthusiasts who dedicate months to rehearsals in the evening hours, after they finish their day jobs.

Cerys says she appreciates that range of experience.

“It's really diverse, and honestly, I think that's really fun that we've got very many decades in age range ... and everybody has different backgrounds and different careers,” she said. "I don't really think about that, because I've only seen them in theater, but it is really amazing."

Katriona, too, recognizes that.

She said this cohort is like a “community within a community” — and that Aspen, for her, might not feel the same without it.

“I only really started feeling that Aspen was home once I built that community, and I met them mostly through the theater, and it went on from there,” she said.

Tickets are selling fast, with limited seats remaining for Saturday and Sunday and for the closing matinee Nov. 13.

Ticket availability is still good for Friday night and for Nov. 11 and 12. For tickets, go to aspenshowtix.com.

Kaya Williams is the Edlis Neeson Arts and Culture Reporter at Aspen Public Radio, covering the vibrant creative and cultural scene in Aspen and the Roaring Fork Valley. She studied journalism and history at Boston University, where she also worked for WBUR, WGBH, The Boston Globe and her beloved college newspaper, The Daily Free Press. Williams joins the team after a stint at The Aspen Times, where she reported on Snowmass Village, education, mental health, food, the ski industry, arts and culture and other general assignment stories.