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Learning to fly: The behind-the-scenes magic it takes to make Mary Poppins soar

Learning to fly: The behind-the-scenes magic it takes to make Mary Poppins soar

CJ Siegler from ZFX Flying, in flight. COURTESY PHOTOS

“I teach people how to fly. Fulltime,” says flying director CJ Ziegler.

When audiences see Mary Poppins fly across the stage at the Broadway Palm, that’s Ziegler’s work. The show runs through Saturday, Aug. 10.

Ziegler, who goes by they/them pronouns, has taught more than 50 people to fly in the last seven months. This includes individuals taking on the roles of Mary Poppins, Peter Pan, and characters from “The Wizard of Oz” such as the fearsome flying monkeys, witches, Mrs. Gulch on a bike, and occasionally even Dorothy. They’ve helped Nemo in Finding Nemo, Jr., to swim in mid-air, and after Mary Poppins, they will go on to assist The Little Mermaid.

Broadway Palm is the fourth Mary Poppins they’ve taught to fly.

“It’s not as difficult as you might think,” Ziegler says, sounding a little like Peter Pan. But unlike Peter, it’s not a matter of simply thinking “lovely, wonderful thoughts. It’s knowing how to pull ropes and follow cues.”

Amy McCleary, the director and choreographer of Mary Poppins, collaborating with Siegler to find the best umbrella position. COURTESY PHOTO

They work for ZFX Flying, an international company based in Louisville,

Kentucky.

Ziegler previously operated at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre where they oversaw the flying in A Christmas Carol for five years, as well as the pre-Broadway production of Tommy.

At Broadway Palm, they taught stage manager Ian Rossin and assistant stage manager Sean Royal how to make Mary Poppins fly.

“I take her up and down,” says Royal.

“I move her side to side,” says Rossin. “Sean has to take her up first before I can move her side to side. She has to look like the gust of wind is blowing her away.”

Mary Poppins flies three times in the show: at the end of Act 1 and in the middle and end of Act 2.

“We’re building the trust, so she feels confident and secure,” says Rossin.

Royal’s flown in drops and set pieces, he says, but never before helped a human fly.

When asked if he tried it himself to experience it, he shook his head.

“I’m very much a grounded person,” he says. “I don’t want to fly.”

At a tech rehearsal, Leah Spurlock, who’s playing Mary Poppins, rehearses flying across the stage, her famous parrot head umbrella in her right hand and her bottomless carpetbag in her left. She’s in her street clothes and has long blonde hair, so she doesn’t look like Mary Poppins. Other actors watch from the theater, surrounded by boxes and various props.

Although this is the second time she’s portraying the iconic nanny, it’s the first time she’s flying.

“I enjoy it,” she says. “I love being up high.”

Spurlock is lifted at least six feet off the ground; other could easily walk underneath her if they wanted. She keeps practicing her flying scenes, so they’ll feel natural when the show opens.

The most uncomfortable part of it is the harness, which she will have to wear under her costume. Her outfits have holes on either side so the harness hooks can be attached to the cables.

“Out of context, it feels a little silly,” Spurlock says. “You’re like a doll in the air.”

Portraying the famous flying nanny hasn’t caused her to have any flying dreams at night, though.

In fact, she says, she’s only had one flying dream in her life that she can remember.

“I was flying around my parents’ laundry room like Peter Pan,” she describes. “I thought of flying, and I just started flying.”

Other productions have had chimney sweep dancers who also defy gravity, walking up the side of the stage and on its ceiling. Broadway Palm decided not to go that direction but instead, concentrate on having Mary Poppins fly. “This is Mary,” says director/choreographer Amy McCleary during a short break in the flying rehearsals. “This is part of her magic, flying. The show is so iconic. You must pay homage to the movie. Because so many people grew up with her, they wanted to see her fly.

“I want the audience to feel like they’re stepping into a storybook,” she adds. And the set of the Banks home does open like a picture book.

“The show is so much about returning to childhood. It does that in a way a good novel, a great book does. It takes you back to your childhood, and you feel that joy.”

And Spurlock makes it look so natural. She’s confident mid-air, landing gently onto the ground in the first-position ballet stance in her Mary Poppins high-button boots. The Banks’ home, at 17 Cherry Tree Lane, is highly reminiscent of Mary Shepard’s illustrations in the original PT Travers books.

“I enjoy it,” Spurlock says. “I like being up high.”

Spurlock can’t wait until she flies during a show in full costume, “Once everything’s in place, they’re feeling the magic of it, and I hear the audience’s reaction to it. That’s the most fun part.” ¦

In the KNOW

“Mary Poppins”

· When: through Aug. 10

Where: Broadway Palm, 1380 Colonial Blvd., Fort Myers

Cost: $23.38 – $79.81

Information: 239-278-4422 or www.broadwaypalm.com