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Playing Broadway's Mary Poppins is a Spoonful of Sugar for Point Pleasant Borough Native

Elizabeth DeRosa on a jolly holiday as an ensemble cast member and Mary understudy

Elizabeth DeRosa waited anxiously in the wings to send her dreams soaring.

The Point Pleasant Borough High School graduate listened for her cue as her fellow actors performed "Mary Poppins" on a Broadway stage.

She had been performing in the play's ensemble cast for nearly five months. But this would be her debut playing the world's favorite British nanny.

She'll never forget the date: Feb. 16, 2010.

It felt like all the things she had ever worked at, including the voice lessons, the dance lessons, the small parts and large roles she played in high school, in summer theatre and even on a cruise ship, all the auditions she had ever went on, were all coming together in that moment.

"I told myself, 'I can do this,' " she said. "One line at a time, one song at a time, one dance step at a time, one costume change at a time.'"

Then her cue came and DeRosa took off like a kite, flying "up to the highest heights, up through the atmosphere."

DeRosa sang, danced and acted one scene after another, as if in a dream.

"It was like time had stopped and everything was just as it should be," said DeRosa, tearing up.

"Emotionally, that's how I was feeling," she said.

"But in my mind, I was focusing on so many different parts of the performance," she said. "I was trying not to think too far ahead. I was trying to just live in the moment.

"A lot of my family and friends were there that night, it was fantastic," DeRosa said.

She had to wait about a month to play Poppins again. Such is the life of an understudy.

"But I'll take it," DeRosa said, laughing. "It's fabulous. It's really cool.

"It's an honor," she said. "I feel like this is what I was made for. And I'm not over it. I'll stay with it unless something else major comes up.

"My performance at this point is 100 percent more comfortable," she said. "While my performance has evolved, it's more relaxed.

"Playing the part is still wonderful. You know what I mean by that, right?" DeRosa asked. "It's such a joyful play, which is great for me, because that's what I'm doing eight times a week."

In a performance last month, the joy was obvious, as DeRosa used her rich soprano voice, quick foot work and witty Poppins persona to delight the crowd.

Towards the end of the play, she gripped Mary's famous umbrella in one hand and carpet bag in the other, as she glided over the audience, beaming all the way.

What did the audience think of her performance? The standing ovation said it all.

DeRosa, 29, the daughter of Joseph and Robin DeRosa, was born and raised in Point Pleasant Borough and graduated from the borough high school in 2000.

She is one of several local high school alumni who will be honored at a dinner held by the Point Pleasant Foundation for Excellence in Education on March 18.

DeRosa was cast as a Mary understudy and ensemble cast member in September 2009, about three years after the play started its run at the New Amsterdam Theatre at 42nd Street and 7th Avenue. Previews had started on Oct. 14, 2006.

DeRosa started rehearsals on Sept. 1, 2009 and began appearing in the ensemble cast on Sept. 23, when she had her Broadway debut.

"I had tears falling from my eyes during the first bows," she said. "It's something I've wanted since I was 12."

Since playing Mary for the first time in Feb. 2010, she has done the role an average of two to four times a month.

"I started rehearsing as Mary in mid-October in 2009 and I was also playing in the ensemble cast eight shows a week," DeRosa remembered.

The role is still a lot of work with rehearsals ongoing.

It took a lot more than a handshake with a chimney sweep for DeRosa to become one of the actors playing Poppins on Broadway.

"I auditioned for the part multiple times and I didn't get it," DeRosa said. "Then someone left for another show and a spot became available."

The play's casting staff invited DeRosa to the theater.

"I was the only one they asked to come, I auditioned and they gave me the job that day," DeRosa said, adding that all of those prior auditions had apparently made the staff believe she was right for the part when a spot opened up.

Anthony Lyn, the play's associate director, said in an email, “Elizabeth has a rare combination of talent and beauty. One always hopes on Broadway to find people who can act, sing and dance wonderfully, and look beautiful doing all three - Elizabeth has just that!”

Playing any Broadway lead would be a lot of pressure.

But playing Poppins might be worse than most.

The role is an iconic piece of world-renowned theater. And Julie Andrews made it that way.

What's it like following that act?

"She is Mary Poppins," said DeRosa, gesturing with her hands for emphasis. "I mean, come on, she is. But I'm Elizabeth DeRosa and I'm never going to be her Mary. There's no way I could. But I hope I honor her."

Despite Andrews' legendary portrayal of Poppins, DeRosa said she didn't consciously think about Andrews when she started playing Poppins.

"But I probably thought of her subconsciously because she is so iconic," she said.

When DeRosa isn't playing lead, she is part of the ensemble cast, which means she sings and dances in most of the group numbers.

She also plays in the "Glamorous Doll Ensemble," as a Scottish china doll with a broken arm who Mary Poppins brings to life.

"She brings her and the other toys in the nursey to life to teach the children a lesson because they're not playing with them properly," DeRosa explains. "Every song is a lesson that Mary is teaching the children."

DeRosa studied acting, singing and dancing at the theatrical conservatory at Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh.

She graduated with honors and a Bachelor of Fine Arts in acting/music theatre in 2004.

In college, she met Robert W. Hellner and the two married in November 2009 at Point Pleasant Presbyterian Church, Point Pleasant Beach.

Her varied background, ironically, includes playing Poppins at the Surflight Theatre in Beach Haven in 2003.

That same summer she also played Eliza in "My Fair Lady."

"That was a dream come true," DeRosa said. "I really hope someone does that show again and puts me in it, while I still look young!"

DeRosa said she can relate to Mary Poppins' bittersweet feelings toward her young charges, Jane and Michael Banks.

DeRosa had worked as a nanny for four different Manhattan families while she went on auditions.

"I know that feeling of getting to know a family and then having to leave," she said. "I've been able to draw from that."

It's been emotional when some of the children she had cared for came to see her as Poppins, she said.

And it's also been moving when some of her former Point Pleasant teachers came to see her perform, especially Paul Caliendo, who was a high school music teacher and band director when she was there.

Caliendo now teaches music and band in Nellie F. Bennett and Ocean Road elementary schools.

DeRosa said she got to know Caliendo while she was acting in high school productions and he was directing high school band for the performances.

DeRosa said she had not only looked to Caliendo for guidance on how to better her high school performances, but also how to deal with personal problems.

"He's a mentor," she said. "I went to him with questions about theater, life and growing up.

"He told me you can't control a lot of outside circumstances that happen in life," DeRosa said, "but you can choose your happiness. You can decide how you feel when you wake up in the morning."

"To this day, my life mantra is 'You choose your happiness,' " she said.

DeRosa and other high school alumni will be honored at the March 18 Annual Hall of Fame dinner held by the Point Pleasant Foundation for Excellence in Education at the Crystal Point Yacht Club.

The other honorees are Robert Taylor, class of 1982; Captain Terrence Higgins, US Army, Class of 1998 and Technical Sgt. Shawn Leonard, US Air Force, Class of 1998.

Caliendo will be honored that night as a "community inductee."

DeRosa, who lives in Brooklyn with her husband, said it means a lot to her to be honored in her hometown.

"I feel humbled to be honored with Mr. Caliendo and people who fought for our country," DeRosa said. "It's incredible."

Caliendo said he first realized DeRosa was meant for the stage when he saw her playing a small role as he was conducting the high school orchestra.

"She was a freshman in the cast of 'Hello Dolly,' " Caliendo said. "She played a little, old lady, a nothing part. But she was giving 100 percent effort.

"There's an old saying, 'There are no small parts, only small actors,' " said Caliendo. "Well, Elizabeth played that small role the way she plays Mary on Broadway. She was always exceptional, always committed. She always devoted all of her talent into everything I saw her do."

Caliendo has, in fact, seen DeRosa play Mary on Broadway, just as he watched her play a variety of roles in high school and at the Surflight.

"She has a beautiful, crystal-clear voice, she's a super talent," Caliendo said.

"When I saw her as Eliza at the Surflight, I told her 'I'll see you on Broadway,' " he remembers. "And now I tell her that I will see her on Broadway playing lead all the time. It's not a question of 'if.' It's a question of 'when.' "

 

Amanda Rauffer March 11, 2011 at 12:58 PM
We are all so very proud of "our own" Elizabeth. In addition to being a stellar talent, she is one of the most kind and sincere people you will ever meet. Good luck to Elizabeth and congratulations on your hard work and dedication. We love you!
Sharon Layman March 12, 2011 at 12:43 PM
We are so thrilled and proud of our niece Elizabeth. I always knew her dream would be fulfilled and she would be on the stage on Broadway!! Her sincerity, compassion and genuine love of life shine through in her performances and make them exceptional in every way!! We love you Elizabeth and are so very thankful for you and your talent.... Aunt Sharon & Uncle Nelson XOXOX
Barbara Hartman March 14, 2011 at 12:07 AM
I am so happy for Elizabeth's dream coming true! She hasn't met me but I am a cousin of her mother! If and when I get to NYC from my rural PA home, I will surely go to see "Mary"! God bless you and your talent, Elizabeth! Barbara Schork Hartman

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