Island Theater Workshop celebrates its 50th anniversary this year, and this summer’s production is its most ambitious yet — “Mary Poppins,” with lead characters that fly above the stage, and two young stars who will undoubtedly hone their theatrical chops (and their already terrific voices) for years to come. You’ll see the results of their hard work and hours of rehearsal this weekend when the musical takes the stage at the Performing Arts Center on Thursday, July 26, and then again July 27, 28, and 29. The shows begin at 7 pm, and Sunday features a matinee at 2 pm.
In period costumes — black button-up boots for young Jane Banks (Molly Crawford) and knickers for her brother Michael (Wyatt Thornton) — the two didn’t miss a line during Act One of their first tech rehearsal last Sunday night at the PAC.
Chimney sweep Bert (played effectively by Jennifer Knight in a gender-bending role) is quite at home with Mary’s magical tendencies, and opens the show setting the scene with a song.
Mary Poppins (Rachel Enriquez, a new player with ITW) floated down into the Banks’ living room, where she met Mrs. Banks (Shelley Brown) and Mr. Banks (Chris Buehler).
Enriquez moved to the Island a few years ago and decided to re-enter the theater world after a quiet Island winter. She said she’s enjoying playing Mary Poppins alongside Molly and Wyatt.
“I didn’t know them at all before this,” Enriquez said. “I met Molly during the callback, and right away I knew she’d get the part. I didn’t meet Wyatt until after. They’re great, they’re hysterical, and they know my lines better than I do.”
Knight’s role as Bert follows, ironically, after her involvement in the ITW’s production earlier this year, “The Vagina Monologues.”
“Other than reading books to my kids and playing all the characters, I’ve never played a male role,” Knight said. “Kevin [artistic director Kevin Ryan] and I had a conversation as he was making final decisions for casting, and I talked to him to see what was his vision. We agreed we’d play with things and see how they turned out. We haven’t gone to any extraordinary lengths — no wigs. We had conversations about Bert, his character and his good-naturedness. He’s a magical character, along with Mary Poppins.”
The entire cast add their considerable voices to the familiar musical numbers, dancing along the stage in hoop skirts and strolling through the park (the backdrop is gorgeous) in top hats and gloves.
Director Ryan was standing with the audience offering feedback as the production moved along last Sunday. Ryan jumped onboard with ITW in 1990, when he took on a principal role in the production of the Gilbert and Sullivan operetta “Iolanthe.”
“It really showed me the power of community theater on Martha’s Vineyard,” he said. By the time that Ryan got involved, ITW had expanded from doing family classic theater once a year with students and other community members (the first show was a production of “The Barretts of Wimpole Street”) to an organization that has presented everything from classic plays and one-acts to musicals and socially relevant pieces, to original works by Island playwrights.
In 1968, ITW was created by Mary Payne as a summer theater project for children. In that first year, only three children, including Payne’s daughter Molly, participated. Since those humble beginnings, ITW has morphed into an organization that encompasses education and performance, and now produces, among other things, an annual pull-out-all-the-stops, large-cast musical complete with extravagant sets and costumes,
“In the earliest days they went anywhere they could find a space,” says Ryan. “The Grace Church parish hall, the old high school. We’re still a sort of vagabond company. Any stage on the Island — we’ve had a production on. Outdoors, private homes, every school on the Vineyard, the Katharine Cornell, the Whaling Church. You name it, we’ve been there.”
In 2010 the ITW acquired a long-term lease from the Preservation Trust for a small building on Music Street in West Tisbury. The space is used for auditions and business purposes, and also serves as storage for props and costumes. Still, when the show must go on, ITW sets up shop in an appropriate space. “I believe the lack of a property has kept it going,” says Ryan. “People have owned it as a community theater.” Ryan credits Lee Fierro for the longevity of the organization.
“ITW wouldn’t be alive right now if it wasn’t for Lee. She really took on the responsibility of keeping this machine moving. I am forever grateful for having had the opportunity to work alongside her and with her.”
Fierro, a former professional actress (who famously slapped Roy Scheider in the face in “Jaws”) originally moved to the Vineyard to retire from the theater world. Mary Payne had other ideas, and tapped her friend to serve as bookkeeper for the newly formed children’s theater program. Fierro helped write and produce the shows and eventually founded the Apprentice Players, an afterschool program for teens. Throughout her time with the ITW, Fierro acted, directed, taught, and served as artistic director for many years. Although she moved off-Island last year, Fierro still plays a role in the continuing work of ITW, according to Ryan.
“She may be in Ohio, but as soon as I draft the outline for the show, I’m on the phone with Lee. She puts her spin on it.”
While the annual musical may account for ITW’s most visible presence in the community, the organization is still primarily focused on education. Ryan is directing the production, and Brad Austin, who has been learning the ropes through ITW’s new director’s studio, will serve as associate director. Plenty of other locals — both kids and adults — take part in “Mary Poppins,” both onstage and off.
That’s the beauty of community theater, the fact that people of all levels of experience get a chance to participate.
For more information about “Mary Poppins” and the Island Theatre Workshop, visit itwmv.org.
Connie Berry contributed to this reporting.