Mary Poppins's Bert: Talk About a Show Stopper

Photo by Joan Marcus

Anyone who's seen the classic Mary Poppins movie with Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke, knows it for its catchy songs, the flying nanny that is Mary Poppins, and some exuberant dancing.

In the stage version of the musical of the same name, now on its way to Houston thanks to Broadway Across America, Mary isn't the only leading role up in the highest heights. In Act II, the actor playing Bert the chimney sweep also gets to soar during the "Step in Time" number.

British actor Gavin Lee originated the role of Bert on the London stage. A year and a half later he was on Broadway for a two-year stint in the role, was a 2007 Tony nominee for Best Leading Actor in a Musical, and now he's on national tour. Not bad for someone who never thought he'd get to New York City, let alone travel to all parts of the United States.

"I do this trick on wires with a harness. It involves me walking up the sides of the theater, the stage, and tap dancing upside down on top of the stage, singing in the middle and then I come down the other side," he says.

"But once I didn't come down the other side. I just stopped. I stopped in the middle upside-down, sung my line and then I didn't move any more. 

"Oh my God. I'm stuck 40 feet in the air, upside down on two thin wires. I'm not moving and I'm supposed to be dancing on the floor."

The computer program that controls his progress had shut down.

Below him, the number was still going on with some 20 chimney sweeps jumping around and leaping over chimneys. Fortunately or unfortunately, there was a release button, which someone hit. Lee's feet lost their contact with the ceiling as his body began its descent to the stage -- still upside down.

He worked to try to spin himself around a la Cirque de Soleil and managed to land on stage and unclip the wires. "We finished the number with the wires sort of hanging in the middle."

Actually, he insists, it's all very safe, both for him and for lead actress Ashley Brown who also played Mary on Broadway. The computer stopping the program is better, he says, "than if it let you fall to your death."

Other than engaging in the occasional death-defying act, Lee and his American actress wife Emily Harvey (in the ensemble and an understudy for five principal roles) are enjoying their tour of the States, accompanied by their cats Henry and Winnie -- who enjoy moving to a new hotel or apartment every three to four weeks.

He likes that the musical is not a carbon copy of the '60s movie, which means he isn't playing a Dick Van Dyke but his own version of Bert.

"This role came along and it's kind of so me. It just seems to fit my body and I find it easy to play. I have a London accent so it's easy to switch over and do the cockney. I'm tall and lanky just like Dick Van Dyke was. Five years later I'm still playing it because it's a brilliant role and I don't want to give it up."

Mary Poppins runs October 22 through November 8 at the Hobby Center. Ticket information is available at broadwayacrossamerica.com and at thehobbycenter.org.


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