Christine Turturro lives in Croton-on-Hudson and attends Croton-Harmon High School, but for months, she has been a fixture at Archbishop Stepinac High School in White Plains, rehearsing to play Mary Poppins in what will be a high-school premiere of sorts.
The all-boys Stepinac recruits ringers from the tri-state area to fill the female roles in its award-winning musicals. Typically, they come from the Catholic high school’s sister schools — Ursuline, Maria Regina, Our Lady of Good Counsel — but more often than not, director Frank Portanova has cast his net wider.
This year, the net reached out to Croton for Turturro. And to Elmsford’s Alice E. Grady Elementary School for Dahlia White who plays Jane Banks. And to Blue Mountain Middle School to find Cortlandt Manor’s Avery Avellino, who plays young Michael.
That Stepinac is one of just six schools in the U.S. to tackle this pilot version of “Poppins” — under the watchful eye of Disney Theatricals — is a testament to producer Keith Sunderland and director Frank Portanova, who have built on the school’s considerable theatrical tradition. The program counts among its alumni Alan Alda and Jon Voight. Sunderland and Portanova have burnished that reputation, show by show.
What they learn in staging “Poppins” will help Disney to tailor the big show to amateur companies. Consider it a test drive.
But the show that opens in White Plains this weekend for a two-weekend run is a full-on show, with lots of magic and scenery and costumes.
The key to playing the practically perfect nanny, Christine Turturro has learned, is: “No matter what you do, no matter how you mess up, you’re always right. The hardest part for me is maintaining that, because everything she does is meticulous. She doesn’t do anything without proper reason beforehand.”
Playing Poppins, she says, means “having the utmost confidence that you’re the correct one and everyone else is wrong.”
The nanny has a lot of magic in that carpetbag of hers, tricks Turturro won’t divulge.
We do know that this Mary flies by umbrella, although how far and in what direction the junior wouldn’t say.
While Mary influences the Banks children — through songs such as “A Spoonful of Sugar” and “Feed the Birds” — playing Mary has influenced Turturro, the actress who clutches the magic umbrella.
“I stand in first position all the time now. (Heels together, feet aligned with the shoulders, with the “shoulder blades two inches apart in the back.”) It has fixed my posture. This show has done wonders for my back, but I gotta stop doing that.”
A senior looks back
When Chris Guzman steps onto the stage in the Major Bowes Theater at Archbishop Stepinac High School tonight — playing Mr. Banks, the stern patriarch in “Mary Poppins” — he’ll be in familiar surroundings: “Poppins” is his eighth Stepinac show in four years.
He was in the ensemble for “Beauty and the Beast” as a freshman, went on to play Raoul in “Phantom of the Opera” as a sophomore, Scrooge in “A Christmas Carol” and Che in “Evita” last year. He won Metro Awards for “Phantom” and “Evita,” the first time in the awards’ 15-year history that anyone notched back-to-back trophies in an acting category.
This year, he’s Mr. Banks.
As he approaches his final high-school curtain, before heading off to NYU/Tisch to study acting, he chatted with me about the role of theater in his life. Here’s an excerpt of that chat.
PK: Next fall, a kid from White Plains will arrive at Stepinac as a freshman, interested a little bit in theater. Not sure. What do you tell him?
CG: If he’s even remotely interested in theater, I’d tell him to go for it. Because it’s not just about performing. With this Drama Club, you get the family feel. After eight shows, yeah, kids move on and different families are formed, but there’s always that great sense of unity and pride in the Drama Club that keeps us together. It’s always heart-breaking when the show is done.
PK: That Monday after is horrible, isn’t it?
CG: Forget it.
PK: Do you remember seniors who were here when you were a freshman?
PK: Can you drop some names?
CG: Michael Nunez, Emily Schlotman, Matt Lotaj…
PK: You were a freshman for “Beauty and the Beast.” When you were a freshman looking up to them, were you in awe of them a bit?
CG: Totally. These guys were like professionals, these guys knew everything, these guys were the best. I looked at them like they were adults. It’s interesting. We were talking about this the other day, a few of us seniors. We see how some of the freshmen look up to us and we’re filling those shoes.
PK: In a school like this, with a tradition of theater, you do rise up through the ranks. You’re always after the guy who’s one grade ahead of you. You’ve had some amazing roles here: Raoul, Scrooge, Che, and Mr. Banks, in a high-school premiere of the musical.
CG: Yeah, it’s unbelievable.
PK: You know, Chris, this doesn’t happen to everyone. You’re aware of that?
PK: What is it like to be Chris Guzman?
CG: OK, I guess. (Laughs.) It’s an honor to be playing these roles. I try never to take these for granted. You never know, realistically, when your last show is. It sounds cliche, but you have to enjoy each show like it’s your last, and live in the moment.
“Mary Poppins,” 7:30 p.m., May 2, 3, 9, 10; 2 p.m., May 11. $22, $18 seniors and those 12 and younger. 914-946-4800, ext. 200.
Here’s the Running Lines video I shot at Stepinac. Enjoy.