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Reporter lives Broadway fantasy in 'Mary Poppins'

NEW YORK — For weeks, I dreamed of my Broadway debut in "Mary Poppins."

There was the excitement of costume fittings, the hard work of rehearsals and the anticipation of being on stage at a premier New York theater. I woke up each morning, counting down the days — I could hardly wait for the moment.

It was over in a blink.

My time in the spotlight as a chimney sweeper in the Disney musical ended just as quickly as it had begun.

For its fifth anniversary, "Mary Poppins" invited me to be a chimney sweep for a day to experience the inner workings of the production at the New Amsterdam Theatre.

I knew it would be fun, but what I thought would be an easy task was anything but. When you're watching a show, you can sit back and, you hope, see an inspiring, entertaining performance. But for this "actress," preparing to be on stage was sheer exhaustion.

Not surprising, said Anthony Lyn, the show's associate director. He told me that being worn out was not at all unexpected for a newcomer. "It is like going to the gym. When you first start, it is hard, but the more you train, the easier it gets," he said, noting his professional cast has trained for years for the theater.

Well, clearly I was a novice. I found myself sweating as if I had run miles after rehearsing for the "Step in Time" scene. ("Never need a reason, Never need a rhyme/Kick your knees up, step in time.") The chimney sweeps — the professional actors, that is — tap dance with their long brooms and skitter across the London rooftop set with ease and energy.

Preparation began two weeks before when I was fitted for my costume by a team dedicated to making sure every detail is perfection on every piece of clothing. After all, Mary Poppins is "practically perfect in every way." To my delight, I learned that besides wearing black denim, a newsboy hat, short wig and dark makeup for my chimney sweeper outfit, I would also get fitted Edwardian style — lace gloves, buttoned up shirt, hat, boots, specially made wig, the works— to dress as Mary for fun. I was also taught to apply my own sweeper makeup so that on the night of the performance, I could quickly make the transformation.

Finally, the morning of the show, I learned and rehearsed the choreography for the two scenes I was in and for the curtain call. Geoffrey Goldberg, an associate choreographer, was encouraging as he showed me how to jump onto the set and dance across the roof, hop over the rail and dance off of the stage. For "Step in Time," he taught me the choreography for interlocking my arms with another actor, dancing in a circle, running to dance on a desk and then shuffling up the stairs in the house. Once I got the hang of it, the moves seemed to come naturally.

I arrived 30 minutes before the start of the show on a rainy Friday night. I was actually able to watch the first act in the audience since my scenes were not until Act 2. Actress Kelly Jacobs was my chaperone during rehearsals and the performance, literally holding my hand, pulling me along at times. She shared her story about touring (she spent two years on the road with "Mary Poppins" as dance captain and appeared in "Mame" at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., and in "Camelot" at Tokyo Disney) and talked about her husband, Adam, who is currently starring as Simba in "The Lion King."

Backstage, there was a sense of organized chaos as most of the actors, with the exception of the principals, did their own makeup; they had only arrived about a half an hour before the start of the show. In between scenes, the atmosphere was festive, with chimney sweepers laughing and offering support.

As the start of the "Step in Time" loomed, I felt well-prepared, thanks to my two guides: Goldberg and Jacobs. And right before going on stage for my "big" performance, I kept replaying Goldberg's advice over and over in my head: "Just smile and enjoy it." So that's what I did. I put a big smile on, grabbed my fellow chimney sweeper's hand and went on stage for my Broadway debut.

I made sure I was in sync with the other actors as I balanced along the roof set and hopped over the rail to dance. To my surprise, as I looked out at the audience, I could not make out faces. I only saw blackness and a sea of streaming lights. After twirling, running up the steps of the house, kicking my feet and skipping, I felt like an old pro. There is a rush of adrenaline, a total high that takes over your body after completely giving yourself over to a character, to the audience. Now I understand why actresses and actors sacrifice their sleep, life and sometimes even sanity, for the craft.

I may have been nervous before I stepped out on that stage, but there truly was one feeling that superseded all others: a sense of camaraderie. It didn't matter how nervous, anxious or confused I felt, one of the actors was right there with me, pushing me to go on and encouraging me to enjoy the experience. That night, I learned this sense of community is what makes Broadway — and "Mary Poppins" — so special.

Once the show ended, I went on stage for curtain call and to bow with the rest of the cast. While I did admittedly mess up my steps, I didn't care! I was a Broadway star, baby. But as I exited the stage on my personal high, I was abruptly stopped by a stagehand.

"Why are they not letting me move? Do I need to go back out?" I wondered.

Then, as a sea of actors parted the hallway and the elevator opened up, Steffanie Leigh, the current Mary Poppins, stepped out to take her bow, and this reporter was quickly brought back to reality.

No, I am not a singer, dancer, or actress. But for one night, I was able to share in the beauty and magic of the Great White Way.

Alicia Quarles is Global Entertainment Editor for The Associated Press.