Saving Mr. (And Mrs.) Banks…Meet the Stars of SSMT’s Mary Poppins: Part Three: Jack Rowles and Tara Michelle Gesling

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Last week, Shenandoah Summer Music Theatre opened the regional premiere of the practically perfect musical Mary Poppins to thunderous standing ovations. Mary Poppins continues its run through Sunday, August 3, 2014. In the final installment of a three part interview series, we meet two of the stars of Mary Poppins: Jack Rowles (George Banks) and Tara Michelle Gesling (Winifred Banks).

Tara Michelle Gesling
Tara Michelle Gesling

Jack Rowles hails from the Washington DC metro area (Maryland side). He’s performed with Shirley Jones, Debbie Reynolds, Jean Stapleton, Dean Jones, Carol Lawrence, Eddy Arnold, and Dorothy Lamour. An Equity actor, some of his credits include the national tour: Capitol Steps, American Movie Classics; NYC: Clue – the Musical, Finnegan’s Farewell; Regional: Li’l Rascals (Goodspeed); All I Really Need to Know (Asolo); Mack and Mabel, 1776 (Music Theatre of Witchita); Peter Pan, Sweet Charity (Kansas City Starlight); Oklahoma (Claridge, Atlantic City); Witness for the Prosecution, State Fair (Allenberry); Tribute to Rogers and Hart (Everyman); Music Man, Yes Virginia (Mill Mountain), as well as Company Member at Totem Pole (1991-2000); and more than 100 other productions nationally.

Tara Michelle Gesling originally hails from Avon, CT. She previously appeared on SSMT’s stage as Ulla in The Producers, followed by Mayzie in Seussical. An Equity actress, Tara has performed professionally across the country and some of her favorite roles include Velma in Hairspray, Mame in Mame, Pattie in Smokey Joe’s Café, Emma Borden in Lizbeth the Opera, The Wardrobe in Beauty and The Beast, and Catherine in Pippin. She has been involved with several NYC workshops (some original works) with several in motion for a possible Broadway revival.

What drew you to SSMT and Mary Poppins this summer?

Jack: I am a proud 1982 graduate of Shenandoah Conservatory, and always grateful to be a part of SSMT. I’m drawn to the charming and magical journey of a turn of the century family in England.  Oh, and a beautiful score.

Tara: I am a Shenandoah Conservatory Alumnus, so I did a few summers as an ensemble member while still in school. I have always thought of Shenandoah as my second home so I didn’t even give it a second thought to come back as an Equity guest artist when asked! A few things drew me to Mary Poppins, including the childhood memories of watching Julie Andrews, and knowing that I too wanted to be in shows and sing like her one day. As an adult, what continues to draw me in is the beautiful and complex story that is set in Edwardian times, but yet it still relevant and relatable to today’s society. The day-to-day struggles the Banks family faces are still relevant with so many families today, and that really drove it home for me.

What drew you to your character?

Jack: Wow, I admire George’s drive and passion for his family.

Tara: I am more than excited to bring Winifred to life on stage! I absolutely love her music, which was added for the musical and is not in the movie. Her complex character and arc as a woman, wife, and the mother of the family is just so thrilling to create. The fact that I get to sing the gorgeous song “Being Mrs. Banks” TWICE each and every show really solidified that I wanted to be Winifred Banks!

What are your solos or ‘big numbers’ and what does the audience learn about your character when you sing these songs?

Jack:Hmmm…..George doesn’t have any big numbers. He has a lot of little moments which lead up to a wonderful discovery in the end. (I won’t spoil the surprise)

Tara: “Being Mrs. Banks” is the moment when you really get to see Winifred in her rawest moments. You really start to fall in love with her and are rooting for her to “get it right” with her family and restore happiness and youthfulness in her marriage. She talks of the days when she first met her husband, and that’s not the man that the audience is seeing, so I have an important job as I portray this character to remind the audience that Mr. Banks is a great man and he has just lost his way while getting caught up in the pressures of providing for his family.

What have been some of the challenges preparing for your role?

Jack: Accents always present a challenge. A 12 day rehearsal period is especially challenging, especially with a huge production like Mary Poppins.

Tara: Just making sure that I did Winifred justice! It’s walking a fine line and easy to play Winifred as a victim, but we have to remember that the story is so much bigger and more complex than what’s just going on with her alone, and after all-it is a musical comedy and not a drama!

What do you love most about Mary Poppins?

Jack:The story and the flying.

Tara:I love how realistic and unrealistic the show is all at the same time. Down at the root, you have a family who is struggling with real world issues, and in the next breath you have a woman fly in with the wind. It takes you away to a different world for a bit, and makes you believe in magic, love and the strength of family!

What is it about the score or the book that most moves you?

Jack: The simplicity of Mary Poppins’ message.  

Tara: Well when you have music like “Feed the Birds” it’s hard not to love this score. The orchestrations are just so full and musically fulfilling, and even during rehearsals when we just have pianos playing the score I still get goosebumps at certain moments hearing them play.

What surprised you most about the musical of Mary Poppins compared with the movie version?

Jack:George’s journey is much more fleshed out in the musical version.  

Tara: What surprised me most was how different my character, Winifred Banks, was written in the musical. She also gets more songs and two lovely ballads, which are such important moments to establishing the dynamic that is going on in the Banks house. 

Aside from your own characters, what character and/or songs in Mary Poppins are your favorites and why?

Jack:Can I have two? Jane and Michael. We see life through their eyes.  And, they are so forgiving.

Tara: If I wasn’t playing Winifred I would want to be playing the Old Bird Woman singing “Feed the Birds”. It is, hands down, my favorite song in the show. Its melody is so haunting and so stunning that its tune draws everyone in each and every time your hear it, whether it’s the first time or the hundredth. I will never get sick of that song and each time we rehearse that scene, even though I am not in it, I still make a point to watch. The imagery that Carolyn has created with this scene is just stunning!

What is the best advice your director and musical director gave you about shaping your performance?

Jack: Carolyn Coulson has been wonderful. She has been throwing out these little gems every day of rehearsal. Actually, one day she mentioned to another actor that she wanted to give the actress some business to do during her song, but she resisted that temptation because she felt the song was about trying to figure out what to do with yourself…..so, she really wanted that tension of finding something to do with her life but not knowing what it is.

Tara: Dr. Thomas Albert and Carolyn Coulson are such an amazing team together! Dr. Albert has worked with us closely to make sure that we are singing our music properly as to not mess with the integrity of the score. He is such a genius when it comes to music, and he steers us in the right direction rhythmically and emotionally in our songs! And we have all loved working with Carolyn! Her advice about who these characters really are and their depth, besides just the lines and songs that you see performed in front of the audience, but who they really are off stage, and everyone’s relationship with one another, is really what makes these actors bring each one of their characters to life!

What do you want audiences to take with them after seeing Mary Poppins?

Jack: “Family First”and “Any one of us can change at any time in our life.” 

Tara: I want them to take a trip down memory lane, remembering how much they loved to watch the movie when they were kids, and for the children joining us- a sense of magic and wonderment. Because after all, “Anything can happen if you let it.”

What are you doing next on the stage after Mary Poppins closes?

Jack:I will go back to my dream job of traveling the country performing political satire with the Capitol Steps.

Tara:After the show closes, it’s back to the NYC audition season for me. I am in callbacks for a few upcoming shows, including a long running Broadway production (it would be bad luck to share what show it is), so time will tell where I am placed over the next few months!

Jack Rowles
Jack Rowles

Mary Poppins runs July 23-August 3, 2014 at Shenandoah Summer Music Theatre, performing at the Ohrstrom-Bryant Theatre, 1460 University Drive, Winchester, VA 22601. For tickets to Mary Poppins, call the box office at (540) 665-4569, or (877)-580-8025.

LINKS

Review ofMary Poppins at Shenandoah Summer Music Theatre by Rick Schneider.

Meet the Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious Stars of SSMT’s Magical Premiere of ‘Mary Poppins’ Part One: Meet Catharine Kay and Patrick Clealand Rosé.

‘Searching for the Perfect Nanny: Meet the Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious Children of SSMT’s Magical Premiere of Mary Poppins’: Part Two: Ella Schnoor and Tyson Francis.