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Olivia Insani plays the lead role in 'Mary Poppins,' which opened Thursday. Performances are slated for 7 p.m. Friday and Saturday and for 2 p.m. on Sunday. Also pictured is Dannie Stiles, who plays Bert.

BCT’s ‘Mary Poppins’ is both magical and modern, cast members say

BUCKHANNON – Buckhannon residents and visitors have a chance to sing along to a family favorite on Friday – not to mention two other opportunities on Saturday and Sunday.

The Buckhannon Community Theatre debuted their presentation of “Mary Poppin” Thursday night in West Virginia Wesleyan College’s Virginia Thomas Law Center for the Performing Arts.

Missed opening night? Performances are scheduled for 7 p.m. Friday and Saturday night, while a matinee is slated for Sunday at 2 p.m.

Olivia Insani, of Clarksburg, a senior at West Virginia Wesleyan College, plays the part of Mary Poppins.

“When I was in high school, one of the proposed plays was ‘Mary Poppins,’” Insani said before Wednesday night’s dress rehearsal. “It was one of the roles I could see myself playing. When they chose another play, I decided I would have to do it one day.”

Insani said they play they chose was “Shrek” – and she played Fiona – but she knew one day she wanted to play the part of Mary Poppins.

“Julie Andrews is such a staple,” Insani said. “Mary is an exciting character, but to fill the shoes of someone like Julie Andrews is an exciting part to undertake.”

Insani said her favorite part of playing Mary is the fact that she’s such a strong female influence – especially in a time when that was unheard of.

“The show takes place in the 1910s and so, for a woman to be forthcoming about how she feels about things is something we can learn from,” Insani said. “We watch Winifred Banks grow and develop more of those habits. She can be whatever she wants to. Just the fact that Mary isn’t afraid to speak her mind in a time when women were not necessarily allowed to do so is really exciting for me. Also, just to be a character that is so sure of herself – I didn’t have to worry about developing much of anything because Mary is written as she is supposed to be. There is very little room for interpretation.”

She said the role of Mary is exciting because it’s the first time she’s played a character who is so upfront.

“I consider myself to be that way – very blunt and to the point – so it was nice to see myself in a role,” she said.

This is Insani’s first time with Buckhannon Community Theatre.

“BCT has been such a wonderful opportunity to be a part of,” Insani said. “It has made me so happy that the town of Buckhannon has something like this. Growing up in Clarksburg, there was no community theater. But I am seeing girls that I see myself in who love to dance and love to sing and love to entertain, and it makes me so happy to know they have an outlet like this and a family in BCT that a lot of community theaters cannot rival.”

“I came in and knew very few people, but now I know I can call on these people now for any number of things,” she added. “They have been overwhelmingly open and overwhelmingly kind. It’s really a gem in Buckhannon.”

Two rising seventh graders were cast as the Banks children: Ella McNeish is Jane Banks, and Pressley Bowers is Michael Banks.

Ella McNeish as Jane Banks, Insani, Stiles and Pressley Bowers as Michael Banks star in the family-friendly musical.

“I am excited to not only grow my resume, but I have found I love the shows more and more as I do them,” Ella said. “I also was in ‘Oliver,’ ‘Beauty and the Beast,’ ‘Aladdin’, and ‘Junie B. Jones.’ I also was in the ‘Miracle Worker’ and ‘War of the Worlds.’”

Ella said her favorite part of playing Jane Banks is that she gets to be a younger child again.

“I am obviously older than what my character is supposed to be, and I get to be sassier,” Ella said.

Pressley said she wanted to be in the play because she’s a fan of the storyline.

“I really liked the movie and was very excited when they said they were doing this show,” Pressley said. “Originally, I auditioned as Jane Banks, but Ella is taller. I got the part of Michael Banks. It is still a big part and the same amount of lines.”

She said playing the part of a boy is different, but still lots of fun.

“I have played the part of a boy before when I was Tiny Tim,” Pressley said. “I was excited to get the part, and I am very excited for this weekend. Playing the part of Michael is great because he is ornery.”

Pressley has had parts in eight prior plays, including “Aladdin,” “A Christmas Carol,” “Junie B. Jones,” “Beauty and the Beast,” “Shrek” and “Miracle on 34th Street.”

“I have thought about acting when I am older, but I just don’t know yet,” she said.

Dannie Stiles plays the part of Bert, who is on his list of top 10 favorite roles.

“It’s fun to play a part that was played by my idol Dick Van Dyke,” Stiles said. “We both have extremely different takes on the part, but it is still stepping into the shoes of someone I admire.”

Stiles said he saw “Mary Poppins” on Broadway and when the chance came up, he knew he wanted to audition for the part of Bert.

He said he feels the Buckhannon Community Theatre adds an interesting form of education for the community, especially in the shows where children and adults work together.

“The children get to see every aspect of production from costume design to set building,” Stiles said. “A lot of kids use this as a surrogate summer camp. They get to learn so much, and they get to actually be in the spotlight. It is cool to see the kids grow – both Ella and Pressley have played my son and daughter in other shows. I am more of a mentor in this show to them, but it is cool to see these kids I have known since they were eight years old. They are 12 now – and two feet taller – and it is great to see them come into their own.”

Stiles said he hopes community members as well as those from around the state come and see the production.

“It’s a classic story,” he said. “This is really different from the movie – it is based on the books. There are some familiar characters from the books that never made the movie or didn’t premiere until the second movie. It’s an interesting to see this show be able to stand alone from the movie but hold its own.

“It’s something new but old. It’s bringing a new take on it, and in my opinion, it is modern, especially the take on Mrs. Banks. In the movie, she was a suffragette. In this, she learns her family is important but so are her goals in life. You see the balancing act of a mother of her family and a career. I think that is extremely modern and very relevant in today’s culture.”

Laura Meese, a Buckhannon Community Theatre board member, is the director of “Mary Poppins.”

Meese works at Buckhannon-Upshur High School with music instructor Jeremiah Smallridge in the theater department there.

“We actually have one of our students assistant-directing with me. We are trying to get a feeder program from the high school.”

The show was selected by the board’s committee, which makes decisions on the plays for the season.

“We give several options so all of the shows that season balance one another,” Meese explained. “We will have one that is more kid-friendly, one that is more of a blockbuster and one that is more edgy all built into one season, so we have good variety for people.”

Meese said folks should flock to see “Mary Poppins.”

“Everyone knows the story,” she said. “However, in this production, everyone has been updated. It still contains all of the traditional music and characters you would care about, but it has made some choices to be able to model at modern audiences.”

“The biggest difference is Winifred Banks,” Meese explained. “In the books, she is not a huge figure. In the movies, she is a suffragette just for funnies. She is an affluent woman who does this as a hobby – she is wearing her nice dresses when she goes out and doesn’t receive any counter protesting or battering. In the play, she is not a suffragette, but is a former actress that has decided she will be a stay-at-home mother and wife. She does not fit into the socialite concept; by the end of the show, she becomes a much stronger woman.”

People from all over – including Buckhannon, Morgantown and Doddridge County – star in the show, Meese said.

“We have children who have never been involved in theater before,” Meese said. “We have students from our high school and college. There are people from Lewis County, and it brings in folks from all over. Jim Knorr used to say of community theater, ‘You might see your physician on stage as a completely different character, and you would have never seen them in that light before.’ It brings people from all walks of life together.”

Assistant director Shawnte McWhorter is serving the first time in this capacity.

“I will be a senior at B-UHS this fall, and I started getting into theater when I was a freshman,” Shawnte said. “I was in the ‘Lion King’ but just part of the ensemble, but I was hooked. The next year I couldn’t be in the production, so I was in tech and I loved it. So, I have just been trying everything because I am almost 100 percent certain theater is going to be something I do for the rest of my life, and I am trying to decide what I want to go to college for.”

Meese said she always likes to choose a student assistant director so she can teach them the tricks of the trade.

Shawnte said “Mary Poppins” is a wonderful play, and she hopes folks will come out and enjoy the production.

“When I first started, I knew nothing about ‘Mary Poppins,’” Shawnte said. “The story is beautiful. It has relatable family issues where everybody comes together at the end. Everybody goes through this. The magic on stage is not fake magic; it is really magic. Every time I watch it, I see something new and feel the magic each time.”

Seth Stemple is the music director and conductor of the orchestra. He said the variety of music extends beyond the normal range.

“We have had accompaniment groups and other smaller groups perform with our productions. A palette of color really helps convey all the craziness that is happening on stage. We have musicians that are local educators and people who have graduated from nearby. Sophia Heath is in middle school and is a fantastic cellist. One of clarinetists works on cruise ships.”

Stemple said it’s great that most folks in the orchestra are from the area.

“A lot are from Buckhannon,” Stemple said. “It is so important to show and spotlight why Buckhannon is so unique. We have so many talented people. This is BCT, this is community theatre. What better way to show the community what the community offers than showcasing its talent?”

Tickets are $10 and can be purchased at www.buckhannoncommunitytheatre.com or Artistry on Main.

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