Oct. 27 2010 12:00 AM

‘Mary Poppins’ turned Nicolas Dromard’s world upside down — literally


When Nicolas Dromard first met Mary Poppins, she offered this good advice: "C’est le morceau de sucre qui aide la médecine à couler."

“I watched the movie when I was a kid, of course, but when I saw the movie it was in French,” Dromard explained. “My first language was French; I didn’t speak English until I was 7.”

Now the Ontario, Canada, native is not only speaking English, he’s doing a Cockney accent eight times a week. Dromard plays Bert, the buoyant chimneysweep, in the touring production of “Mary Poppins,” which opens Nov. 4 at the Wharton Center.

Dromard joined the tour a month and a half ago, having warmed up for the role as part of the Broadway “Poppins” cast. “So now I know the show like the back of my hand,” he said.

Prior to “Poppins,” he’d been playing Fiyero, the man Elphaba and Glinda both adore, in the San Francisco production of “Wicked.”

“Bert is a more physically demanding role than Fiyero,” Dromard said. “So I’ve been going back to the gym and getting my stamina back up. I never stop sweating, which is great — but my costume keeps getting bigger and bigger because I keep losing weight.”

Those who’ve seen the stage version of “Mary Poppins” will understand why. Bert is almost always on the move. In one of the show’s most eye-popping moments, he and his fellow chimneysweeps stomp up a storm during the “Step in Time” number, moving up the side of the proscenium and finally finishing their dance completely upside down at the top of the stage.

While the stage version of “Mary Poppins” retains the familiar songs from the 1964 Julie Andrews film, the script is considerably different, incorporating several situations and characters from author P.L. Travers’ four “Mary Poppins” books that didn’t make it into the movie.

According to Dromard, “Poppins” producer Cameron Mackintosh is responsible for those additions. Travers, who died in 1996, never liked the Disney movie — after the premiere, she cornered Walt Disney and insisted on several major changes; Disney politely but firmly replied, “That ship has sailed” — and her will stipulated that no Americans could be involved in any future Poppins projects. Even though Mackintosh is British, it took him 20 years to convince Travers to give him the stage rights to her work; he began his mission in 1973, but she didn’t say yes until 1993. Eight years later, Mackintosh began negotiations with Disney Theatrical, hoping to combine the original Oscar-winning songs by the Sherman Brothers into the show with newly written music by George Stiles and Anthony Drewe.

“It’s incredible how they flow in seamlessly," Dromard said. "You’d think everyone had written the score together.”

The framework remains the same, with “practically perfect” nanny Mary Poppins materializing in London at exactly the right time to save the Banks household from falling into total chaos. George Banks is a workaholic with low self-esteem, his wife is ill at ease in her position as a socialite, and the children, Jane and Michael, are rambunctious. It takes more than un morceau de sucre — oops, a spoonful of sugar — to set things right, so Mary enlists the help of the adoring Bert (and a modicum of magic) to put the family on the right track.

Travers’ books were published in the 1930s, but Dromard says the message of “Mary Poppins” still resonates.

“It’s a timeless story for all generations, for all times. The George Banks character works at a bank and he’s afraid of losing his job — that couldn’t be more on a par with the financial climate we’re in now. Mary Poppins teaches the kids morals, and the message of the show is that anything can happen if you let it; if you work hard enough at something, you’ll achieve it. Fifty years from now, that will still be valid for people growing up in this world.”

It was certainly a theme Dromard could relate to. He began dancing as a child after seeing a Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers film.

“Now, I’m tap-dancing eight times a week — upside down,” he said, chuckling. “And every night, I go onstage and think, ‘I love my job.’ I really do.”