Editor's note: The print version of this story included the wrong dates for performances of "Mary Poppins" by Craft Productions, and an incorrect telephone number to order tickets. This information has been corrected.
The first musical Michael Fling remembers seeing was a production of “Peter Pan” by a Tulsa theater company called Theater Arts.
“That show just blew my mind,” Fling recalled. “The people flying around the stage — I had never seen anything like it. And it became my dream and hope to be able to do something like that with that company.”
It’s taken only 16 years but Fling is finally getting to make that childhood dream come true, directing the musical version of “Mary Poppins.”
Between 1994, when it presented the musical version of “The Secret Garden,” to 2005, when it staged Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast,” Theatre Arts, founded and run by Shari Lewis, built a reputation for putting on high-quality, large-scale musicals featuring local performers of all ages, usually with well-known actors in leading roles.
The company’s productions included “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat,” starring Sand Springs native and Tony Award nominee Sam Harris; “The King & I” with Debby Boone; “Oliver!” with Jamie Farr as Fagin; “Camelot” with Charles Shaughnessy (“Days of Our Lives,” “Mad Men,” “The Nanny”) and Oklahoma native and Miss America winner Susan Powell; and John Davidson in the title role of “The Will Rogers Follies.”
The company has a new name — Craft Productions — but its goal remains the same: to present full-scale, Broadway-style musicals while providing cast members with as professional a theatrical experience as possible.
“We have a lot of great community theater in Tulsa,” Lewis said. “But we do something a little different. We want our shows to be large-scale and for every aspect to be run in as professional a way as possible — in the way people and their talents are treated, in how we conduct our rehearsals, in the quality of the shows we present.”
Lewis said the goal is to develop a true summer stock company, where local performers would be able to earn points toward membership in Actor’s Equity, the union for stage performers.
“We want to provide things that will benefit those kids who are wanting to go forward with a career in the arts,” she said.
“Mary Poppins” will star two Oklahoma natives in the main roles. Bartlesville native Kennedy Caughell, who has performed in the national touring productions of “American Idiot” and “Wicked,” portrays the seemingly magical nanny who floats down from the skies one day to take over the gently dysfunctional Banks household.
“Michael reached out to me and asked if I would be free in July,” Caughell said. “I’ve always had a real passion about helping the arts grow and to be able to help with that in my home state — I didn’t have to really think about it.”
Tulsa native Cody Davis, whose career has included the national tours of “White Christmas” and “Cinderella,” will play Bert, the jack-of-all-trades who serves as Mary’s right-hand man in bringing the Banks family and their problems to a happily-ever-after resolution.
“The first musical I was ever in was with Theater Arts — I played the younger version of Adrian Zmed’s character in ‘Big,’ ” Davis said. “That was 18 years ago, and that’s when I really caught the theater bug.”
Fling, who works as a freelance theater director based in New York, has returned to Tulsa the past two years to direct the annual musical at his alma mater, Jenks High School.
It was soon after the opening of the 2018 production of “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” that Lewis got in touch with Fling about working together.
“She sent me an email that said I probably didn’t know who she was but she had seen the production and was impressed with the work I had done,” Fling said. “I wrote back immediately and said I knew exactly who she was and that it had always been a dream of mine to work with her.
“We went to dinner and ended up talking for hours,” he said. “One of the things I said was that the ideal way to restart things with one show, then it wasn’t a time to play it safe. It should be a big show, one that makes a statement. When Shari asked what that show should be, I immediately said ‘Mary Poppins.’ ”
One reason for the choice, Fling said, is that the 1964 film is his all-time favorite movie.
“But the timing just seemed right,” he said. “The movie ‘Mary Poppins Returns’ was about to be released, and in a very real sense, this company has returned. It just seemed like everything was falling into place.”
For Davis and Caughell, taking on iconic characters that were first performed by two giants of stage and screen was a bit daunting.
“I mean, you just can’t get better than Julie Andrews, and if there’s one thing I know, I’m not Julie Andrews,” Caughell said. “And I’ve made my peace with that. I know that I’m going to want to have these nods to nostalgia, but at the same time, I want to look at the script, look at what (‘Mary Poppins’ creator) P.L. Travers wrote, then bring all that together to understand how Mary Poppins would respond to each situation.”
What Davis wants to capture in his portrayal of the happy-go-lucky Burt is “the joy that Dick van Dyke brought to this character. That’s something I’ve never forgotten about the movie. So I’m not really trying to reinvent Burt or anything like that.”
Fling said that the musical adaptation of “Mary Poppins” was more acerbic than the film version, which reflected more Walt Disney’s vision of the story than that of author P.L. Travers. When Cameron Mackintosh approached her about a musical version, Travers demanded that only British writers could work on the script and no one from the movie be involved (other than the well-known songs by Robert and Richard Sherman).
“Maybe there wasn’t enough sugar to make the medicine go down,” Fling said. “What I wanted to do was strike a balance with a show that has some of that edge to it but is also joyous and happy. After all, it’s the happy moments that people are going to remember.”
That and a theatrical effect that no one wants to describe.
“It’s like when I saw that ‘Peter Pan’ for the first time,” Fling said. “I wanted to have something in the show that people are going to be talking about.”
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