'Mary Poppins' reaches milestone with weird twist

/ Source: The Associated Press

Mary Poppins just couldn't stay away from her chimney sweep.

Laura Michelle Kelly, who originated the role as the magical nanny in 2004, is about to celebrate the musical's fourth anniversary on Broadway this month alongside Gavin Lee, the original Bert.

"I'm having more fun than ever," says Kelly.

"It's amazing what this story has brought into our lives," says Lee.

Getting to see an original cast member in a big blockbuster musical six years after his or her debut is as likely these days as hitting the lottery. That's why the Broadway version of "Mary Poppins" is unusual — it boasts not one, but two originators.

During a joint interview in Lee's cozy dressing room at the New Amsterdam Theatre, the two are as chummy as old friends can be. Both British-born, Kelly, 29, is even doing something very Poppins-ish: sipping tea. Compliments between them seep out easily.

"You are very solid," Kelly tells Lee at one point. "You're the rock, which means I can be the water."

"I love that!" replies Lee, 39.

"I think that's why we're such a good team," she says.

The duo have taken different paths to arrive together again. Kelly was already an established star in London — she had appeared in "Beauty and the Beast," "Les Miserables, "Mamma Mia!" and "My Fair Lady" — when she won the part of Mary. Lee's West End credits included roles in "Crazy for You," "Peggy Sue Got Married," "Oklahoma!" and "Contact."

Kelly was flown to London from New York, where she was making her Broadway debut in "Fiddler on the Roof," to see if she and Lee had chemistry. They did: The Poppins musical that opened in the West End in 2004 eventually earned each an Olivier Award nomination, Britain's equivalent of Broadway's Tonys. Kelly won as best actress in a musical.

The Walt Disney Co. show, based on the children's books by P.L. Travers and the beloved 1964 movie starring Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke, tells the story of the world's most practically perfect nanny in Edwardian London. With a big cast, great songs, lavish sets and stunts that include Mary flying with her umbrella and Bert tap dancing upside-down, the show was a supercalifragilisticexpialidocious hit.

Some 18 months later, Kelly left to pursue other projects. She appeared in "Speed-the-Plow" in London with Jeff Goldblum and Kevin Spacey, did the film "Sweeney Todd" with Johnny Depp and released a debut CD, "The Storm Inside."

"I just felt like I wanted to change a little because I had done West End leads for six years. I wanted a change for a bit to see what else was around," says Kelly. "Although I loved all those experiences, in a way its given me freedom to appreciate what I really have now."

Lee, meanwhile, stuck with Bert. He took the chimney sweep to Broadway in 2006 and then went on a U.S. tour for more than a year. He performed at the Tony Awards, where he was also nominated and appeared on "The Tonight Show" with Conan O'Brien. The Broadway show also enlarged his family: He and his wife, Emily Harvey, an actress who had been on the "Mary Poppins" tour, just celebrated the birth of their first child.

"I've never played a role that I get to basically show off so much in. I get to do everything that I personally think I'm good at," he says. "I love playing the role and I think I fit it very well, so you kind of go, 'Let's ride it out.'"

Since they reunited in August on Broadway, Lee and Kelly have begun creating their own stories: They performed for President Barack Obama, and were on stage for a matinee the day Charlie Sheen later melted down in a posh New York hotel.

Neither are leaving any time soon; both have already signed up for another year at least. Kelly, who has originated a new song in the show, says she doesn't get bored playing the same role over and over.

"The second you get on stage, it literally is like the moment you can choose to have the best fun of your whole life," she says. "How can you not be happy? I've got all these people smiling at me at the end of the show."

Lee agrees: "It's been amazing. Who knew it would be this long?"