Perfecting Poppins

“Practically perfect in every way” — legions of Disney fans who grew up watching Mary Poppins remember the tape-measure description of the world’s most famous nanny, a character so memorably brought to life by Julie Andrews in the 1964 movie.

Ashley Brown has faced the challenge of living up to that standard for almost three years, ever since she first assumed the iconic role in the Broadway musical of the same name. But as she travels the country in the touring production (which blows into the State Theatre, umbrella and all, July 17 through Aug. 9), the 27-year-old Gulf Breeze, Fla., native seems comfortable in the part.

“As I was getting ready for the audition, I thought, I’m not going to just copy Julie Andrews — I won’t be successful at trying to be somebody else being somebody else,” she says. “I really took a chance and made Mary Poppins my own.”

Brown, who studied at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music, says additional scenes and songs never tackled by Andrews allowed her to develop a character who’s a little sterner, yet endowed with her own good sense of humor. She describes the musical as “a happy medium” between the movie and the books by P.L. Travers that inspired it.

Like the books, the stage version more clearly depicts the Bankses, Mary Poppins’ employers, as a dysfunctional family headed by a detached, workaholic banker who doesn’t know his children. “Then the husband gets fired, and he takes it out on the family,” she says. The tale, Brown notes, is particularly relevant to the times.

“When I’m flying over the audience at the end, I see grown men crying,” she says. “When they come, they think, Oh, I’ll bring the wife and kids if that’s what they want me to do.

"But they really are surprised by how much of the story is about Mr. Banks. It’s about his journey to become a better person — a better employee, a better father, a better husband. They can relate to that.”
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