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September 18, 2014

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Q+A: Jennifer Hemme, theater director at Green Valley High School, talks ‘Mary Poppins’

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Mary Poppins.

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Green Valley High School is the first nonprofessional organization to stage the Broadway musical "Mary Poppins," which was based on the book series and Disney film (pictured) of the same name.

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The cast of Broadway's Mary Poppins on Dancing With the Stars on Nov. 2, 2010.

Last Thursday, Green Valley High School became the first nonprofessional organization to perform the Broadway musical “Mary Poppins” after being handpicked to debut its amateur version by licensing agency Music Theater International — even before the play’s rights were made available to the public.

A spoon full of sugar will again help the medicine go down this weekend, as GVHS presents a second run of the beloved musical tonight through Saturday evening.

I talked with GVHS theater director Jennifer Hemme, who discussed the challenges the play presents, the work being done by students and how Cherry Tree Lane will again make its way to Smith Center for the Performing Arts in May.

This isn’t the first time Green Valley High School has been chosen to debut an amateur version of a Disney stage show. Why is the school routinely chosen?

We have established a relationship with Music Theater International and Disney, and over the years they have appreciated our work. They choose different schools throughout the country to do different pilots so that they can get a sense of what the students are capable of and be able to envision based on the scripts that they license.

What other Disney stage shows has the school produced?

The first one we did was “High School Musical: On Stage,” and then we did “High School Musical 2: On Stage” two years after that, and then “Camp Rock” The Musical” two years after that. … Every couple years when they have something new, we’ve had a chance to do a pilot for them. This is definitely the biggest ever, though; no question about it.

Why is that?

The other shows we piloted with them were not Broadway productions, and this one was actually on Broadway. … With the flying and Bert walking on the proscenium and the sets and the costumes, it’s just a huge, huge production. It’s been really fun, but it’s been a challenge, as well.

How did your relationship with MTI begin? Did they approach you with “High School Musical”?

I actually met them at a conference many years ago, and it was a kind of twist of fate. They had a computer break and I lent them mine and we became friends. … When I worked at Las Vegas Academy, they had a new product called OrchEXTRA [which supplies fill-in tracks for missing instruments in a musical’s pit orchestra] that they wanted someone to try out, so because of my familiarity with technology, they asked me. … That was the first thing I kind of piloted for them, and it’s been a friendship and a relationship ever since. It’s been really, really nice. They’ve been very supportive of our program, and we’re happy to do things like that for them.

How close does the show stay to what audiences saw on Broadway until this past year?

It is pretty darn close. … Obviously, we don’t have the space that they have on Broadway, but the script is the same and the music is the same — nothing has been changed. They’re [MTI] working on some adaptations and things, but nothing major has been changed since … the national tour.

“Mary Poppins” is quite the imaginative play. I understand you’ve enlisted some professional help to pull off the show.

Yeah, we’re really lucky to have an awesome team of professionals who has come in from the community to help us out. Flying by Foy does the flying for all kinds of flying productions throughout the country, and they happen to be based in Las Vegas. So it’s really nice to have some local folks here, and they are taking care of the flying for us. … We have a professional sound designer and lighting designer, and they’re working with our students and teaching them a lot. It’s been really nice to have all the extra support; they’ve been really great.

The students are learning British accents. How are they going about that?

They’re doing really well. It’s difficult, especially because they’re not all the same. You know, based on the different class of the character … They’ve been working really hard. … There’s dialect-coaching CDs and tapes and things like that that they’ve used, as well.

Are Green Valley students supplying the accompanying music this year?

Yeah, they are. We have a cool setup. … Since we don’t have an orchestra pit, we were trying to replicate an orchestra pit as close as possible. … Some people from Cirque du Soleil made us a beautiful walled-off sound room for the orchestra to play in, and it has Plexiglas windows and it’s really, really cool. We have a full 22-piece orchestra.

I know the school’s musical is one of the few times that the entire performing arts department works together. Why is it important for students to experience that?

It takes so many people to put on a production. The technical students, the choir, the band, the orchestra — everyone plays a part. And it’s so special to be able to appreciate each other’s art form and to really combine it all to make one big event.

Green Valley is known nationally for its performing arts programs. Why do you think the school has continued to do so well for so many years?

Well, our motto of our school is “Commitment to Excellence” and that’s what is expected of us, and that’s what we strive to achieve every single day. And I always say: We don’t think of our theater department as a high school theater; we are committed to excellence in everything we do, no matter what. We consider ourselves a performance group. Like a community-theater production. So everything is a little bit above the level of expectations that someone would think of for a high school.

While the show closes at the school this weekend, you’re bringing it to the Smith Center stage in May?

We are. We’re actually being adjudicated for the International Thespian Festival in Lincoln, Neb. And if we are selected, we have to remount the show in June and travel it across the country. … I wanted to prepare in the best way possible, so I approached the Smith Center and the education department, and they are allowing us to rent out Reynolds Hall to do the show there in preparation for Nebraska.

Will that be a ticketed event?

It will. It’s pretty amazing; it will be the first time a high school has put up a show — a full musical — on the Smith Center stage, so it should be pretty special.

Are there any plans for next year’s season in the works yet?

No, I’m just trying to get through this one (laughs). … We actually produced an eight-show season this year, so “Mary Poppins” isn’t our only big show — we have a lot of shows going on. And hopefully preparing for … Nebraska, as well. Thinking about having to ship the set and the costumes and the two-story house and a nursery and rooftops and costumes and scenery and lighting and orchestra equipment all the way across the country, and [loading] it into a theater and [producing] the show in three hours is going to be enough of a challenge (laughs).

“Mary Poppins,” today through Saturday, 7 p.m., $12-$15. Green Valley High School, GVHSTheatre.com.

Green Valley High alumnus Mark Adams is web editor of Las Vegas Weekly, a sister publication of the Las Vegas Sun.

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