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South Jordan Journal

Just a spoonful of confidence makes the SJE ‘Mary Poppins’ cast shine

Aug 18, 2021 02:26PM ● By Julie Slama

By Julie Slama | [email protected]

South Jordan Elementary fifth grader Ashlyn Gardner approached her teacher Diane Witt-Roper in early May and talked to her in a British accent.

“She told me she’d be talking with her accent and would stay in character until the play was over,” said Witt-Roper, who along with teachers Scott Knight and Alan LeFleur oversaw the school’s production of “Mary Poppins.”

Ashlyn performed as Mrs. Banks in cast T—T meaning tall (as opposed to cast “S” for short). 

All the lead characters were double-cast and the musical cast had double the time than usual to prepare—sort of, Witt-Roper said.

“The musical was very successful, and it was two years in the making. We were three weeks away from performing it when the world shut down,” she said, adding that the 2020 cast was able to sing some of the songs for legislators at the capitol rotunda in February before the pandemic hit.

Still, the cast practiced virtually during spring 2020 when schools were put on soft closure in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Knight even continued to hold virtual rehearsals during the summer, hoping the cast could perform it when students returned in the fall.

After learning that wasn’t a possibility, they directors approached Jordan School District officials to see if they could begin masked rehearsals in 2021. 

By February, they were allowed to resume, and students were welcomed back to their auditioned roles. Sixth graders in 2020 now were in middle schools; some returned to their parts, some didn’t. Others may have sat out because of pandemic concerns or other reasons, and Witt-Roper found she didn’t have a full cast.

“We basically recast and started over again,” she said. “The biggest thing is to see their diligence to come and to perform, to sing, to dance, day after day in masks. It was just phenomenal. They were still willing to give that much effort even though they knew their faces wouldn’t be showing.”

For three months, the cast practiced two hours each Monday through Thursday, increasing their rehearsal lengths and adding in some extra days as the production drew near under the direction of their teachers.

“We’ve been collaborating together for years,” Witt-Roper said. “We do this because we love it. It brings us joy, and we love to see the kids and their growth. It translates to the classroom, with literacy, teamwork and building their confidence.”

She said one cast member’s reading ability increased eight levels during the run with reading, memorization and other literacy skills.

Knight said he received a letter from a mother of one of the lead cast members.

“She wrote that before the play, the student struggled with school, grades, friends and confidence,” he said. “Since then, the student has [high academic marks], is popular at school and is more confident because of this experience.”

The students also learned a bit about social studies and history of the time period and the importance of the songs, Witt-Roper said. 

“Mr. Knight went over the songs, so they understood the time frame of what was happening and why,” she said.

For example, Knight walked them through why Mr. Banks sings “I treat my subjects: servants, children, wife with a firm but gentle hand” in “The Life I Lead” or why he encouraged his children to put money in the bank and not spend it to “Feed the Birds.”

Students also learned about women suffragists, first through a video about Susan B. Anthony, then by learning how Mrs. Banks was going out to get women to vote in “Sister Suffragette.”

Maybe it was a smidgen of Mary Poppins’ magical powers, like her ability to slide up a bannister or use her umbrella as a parachute, that instead of the 58 students taking the stage with their mid-June 2021 performances in masks, they were allowed to opt out of wearing face coverings as Gov. Spencer Cox lifted the mask mandate.

“We were prepared to perform in masks; our whole musical and school year was led by decisions surrounding the pandemic,” said Witt-Roper, adding that they fortunately didn’t have any issues with the cast concerning the disease.

After the performances, she has heard compliments from the audience similar to what she has heard year after year.

“We often hear that they expected to see an elementary play, but they are so surprised when it’s performed like a high school level production. Our students take pride in it and have a lot of hard work and dedication,” Witt-Roper said, adding that parents’ appreciation also came in notes, gift cards, treats and a clock made from a record that featured a die-cut of Mary Poppins and says, “In every job that must be done, there is an element of fun.” “It’s just been amazing.”