By PAM HARBAUGH
Ashley Willsey was one of hundreds gathered last summer for the Cocoa Village Playhouse season announcement gala at the King Center.
When the title “Mary Poppins the Musical” was declared, she made a special note.
“I was like, oh my gosh, I’ve got to audition for this,” she said. “I love the movie. I love the musical. Since I was a little kid. I had that audition on my calendar for months.”Willsey, the marketing director at Orlando Repertory Theater, got her dream role — Mary Poppins herself.
This is not her first time on the Playhouse boards. Willsey thrilled audiences in her turn as Fiona in its wildly popular production of “Shrek the Musical.” Like so many of CVP’s shows, its run was extended to satisfy audience demand.
“I love working at Cocoa Village Playhouse,” Willsey said. “Their production quality is just outstanding and in my opinion is on par with anything you see being professionally produced in Central Florida. Their sets, costuming, lighting, sound…all of those elements are always top notch. Because of that, they attract incredible top quality performers as well.
“They bill themselves as ‘Broadway on Brevard’ and they really deliver on that.”Of course, Mary Poppins is that delightful, story of a family much in need of someone to get the children and the parents in line in order to make a happier home. Summoned rather wondrously by a letter the children write, she flies in on the wind…and her umbrella. She and her unusual assortment of friends bring lessons of love and true family values.
Based on the P. L. Travers and the 1964 Disney film, the musical for Mary Poppins has its script written by Julian Fellowes, creator, writer and producer of the ultra popular “Downton Abbey” television series.
Although it does not follow the film exactly, there’s all those wonderful tunes audiences love, such as: “Chim Chim Cher-ee,” “A Spoonful of Sugar” and “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.”
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At Cocoa Village Playhouse, more than 70 people are in the cast of “Mary Poppins.” The orchestra has 16 musicians under the baton of William H. Yoh.
Willsey said the voices and the orchestra in the show are fabulous.
“Live music always enhances any production so much,” she said. “I love that Cocoa Village Playhouse is committed to presenting not only live music but using the full orchestration for every show. A lot of times a theater will say it has live music and it will be someone with a piano and a drumset, that’s it.”
Her favorite magical moments come in the the song “Feed the Birds” which teaches the lesson that a little bit of good magnifies the best in the world; and flying in with her umbrella and carpet bag.
“The scene when I’m about to fly onto the stage, I’m hanging up high in the wings, just waiting, and I look down and see everyone on stage looking up and singing to me,” she said. “I love that moment. It’s cool.”
The show is very much about dreams, which is consistent with the history and legacy of CVP, said Anastacia Hawkins-Smith, CVP’s artistic and executive director.
Indeed, it was 1989 when Hawkins-Smith first stepped into the nearly dilapidated venue, once known as the Aladdin Theater where people in the 1920s would flock to watch silent movies. Although it had then become home to pigeons and decades of dust, she saw only possibilities.
Fast forward to today and you find a jewel-box of a community theater, complete with sparkling chandeliers, twinkling lights on its marquee, 600 seats and full blown costume and scenic shops. Now finishing its 27th season, CVP has a full, part-time and seasonal staff of 52, teems with a base of 600 volunteers, scores of volunteer actors, lavish visuals, full orchestras and 250 students in its Stars of Tomorrow program.
There’s also an audience base of 4,000 subscribers. The active season bill performs to nearly 60,000 each year. Indeed, the continuing growth caused the Playhouse to burst at its seams, giving way to a busy annex and plans for more expansion in another five years.
Although CVP is not a professional “house” like Riverside is, David Dunn said the productions boast very good voices, wonderful orchestras and stunning visuals. His only beef is that if he doesn’t get his tickets early enough, he can’t get the seats he wants.
That is so true. Those season tickets get scooped up as soon as Hawkins-Smith makes her season announcement, always done with as much flourish as the show woman can muster.
Productions themselves, the season announcements are made in the summer. Once held at the Playhouse, the announcements now draw so many people they had to be moved to the 2,000 seat King Center in Melbourne.
This year, it will be held July 8 at the King Center.
There, with all the pomp and circumstance of a presidential inaugural party, an emcee takes a look at the past season and introduces favorite performers who entertain the audience. Finally, after intermission (yes there is an intermission at the announcement), Hawkins-Smith, bedazzling in sequined garb, gets “piped” in with an army of bagpipers and…eventually…announces the upcoming season to shrieks, squeals and even a balloon drop.
Those over a certain age would be wise to bring ear plugs to the season announcement.
As far as “Mary Poppins,” scoop up the kiddies, or bundle up the child within and get to Cocoa Village Playhouse. It’s a show for all ages.
SIDE O’ GRITS: “MARY POPPINS the Musical” runs through May 21 at Cocoa Village Playhouse, 300 Brevard Ave., Cocoa, Florida. Tickets are $24 general, $22 senior, active military and students and $16 for children. Calll 321-636-5050, visit CocoaVillagePlayhouse.com or click onto their ad.
This is an edited version of the story running in Melbourne Beachsider.