Geoffrey Goldberg ’swings’ across America with ’Mary Poppins’

by Robert Israel

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Thursday February 17, 2011

Geoffrey Goldberg radiates optimism. He draws from that wellspring on a daily basis as he navigates his way in the often times difficult world of the stage. Without that optimism, Goldberg, 27, who works as a dance captain/swing in the Broadway Across America production of the musical Mary Poppins, he'd be unable to perform and to instill that belief in his fellow thespians.

Mary Poppins, which freely adapts the Academy Award winning Disney film, reinventing it as an onstage, arrives at Boston's Opera House through March 20.

"I started dancing as a youngster," Goldberg tells me. "My mother is a singer and growing up in a suburb of Philadelphia I knew early on - since the age of 6, actually -- that I wanted to perform. I did the usual stuff -- community theatre, singing, becoming really good at tap dancing - and then my family moved to New York when I was a teenager."

Later, he enrolled at New York University. He was itching, he says, to audition, to make the pilgrimage from the downtown campus to the Great White Way of Broadway. But NYU wisely cautions its undergraduates not to pursue a life on the boards until completing their academic requirements.

"They insist that you stay focused on academics, especially as an entering student, and I did," he says, "but once freshman year was over, I didn't wait too much longer to try out for shows. I went to dozens of auditions. Later on, I ended up taking some time off from academics by junior year in order to perform."

Along the way, he studied with Savion Glover, who is looked upon by Goldberg, and by many others in the theatre community, as the guru of tap dancing.

"From Savion Glover and others I've studied with, I learned that you have to have the drive, the will, the determination, that persistent singular focus," Goldberg says, "or you'll never make it in the theatre. So I did a lot of regional theatre work, went to dozens of auditions, landed a role in 'Singing in the Rain,' and ended up getting my Actor's Equity card, and then I went on to do 'Grease'.'"

Finally, with a sheepskin from NYU in hand, he took to the road with '42nd Street,' and landed a gig as part of the ensemble for that show which brought him, for several months, to China and Korea. He's been on an upward spiral ever since, performing in another musical that was based on a film, 'Chitty Chitty Bang Bang' and, for the last couple years, as a member of the ensemble and as dance captain in Mary Poppins.

Dual role

Goldberg has a dual role in Mary Poppins: as swing, he has to be ready, he says, to step in without advance notice and replace any member of the 13 males in the cast who might be ill or away on vacation. And as dance captain, he has to be a taskmaster, to run the cast through the numbers and to train new cast members.

"I know all the choreography for each number, and I can step in as needed," he says, "so, for me, every performance is different. I never know what to expect. When a new cast member arrives, it's my job to train them. Yes, I'm a taskmaster. But I'm told I'm a very patient drill sergeant, too, because I know what it's like on the other side. So I work with them - over and over again, if necessary -- until they get it."

When the screen version of Mary Poppins opened in 1964, with Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke in the cast, it garnered 13 Academy Award nominations. It went on to win 5 awards, including best actress for Andrews and best song for "Chim Chim Cher-ee." The songs, including the well known "Spoonful of Sugar," are part of the current production. But are many new songs and the choreography is also been reinvented. According to Goldberg, the producers have returned to the stories of the late author P.L. Travers for inspiration, and have faithfully captured, onstage, he says, the essence of her original work.

"There's always the expectation on the part of the audiences that come to the show that this it'll be just like the movie," Goldberg says. "But this production, while taking a lot of material from the movie, is really very different. There is a new spirit, poignancy, and a new life in the show."

Goldberg also finds the message of surviving and keeping a family together despite financial stringencies a particularly compelling theme for today's troubled economic times.

"The father loses his job and he wants to be a good dad and feels badly about not having work to support his family," Goldberg says. "And that's very real today for a lot of people."

When the show rolls in Boston - and, according to advance material, it takes two-and-a-half days to load the show into each new theatre, including readying 250 different props and a set that weighs around 11,000 pounds - Goldberg will join the cast of 42 actors, who, he says are also very gifted dancers and singers, for what he terms a "fantastic experience to create characters all over again, each time we're on stage."

"It's not like we're the Rockettes," he says, "where you have to be a certain height and perform certain dance routines over and over again. Each night we are driven by the characters we play. We get a lot of freedom to make choices on how we can portray that character, too."

Goldberg, who has been on the road for the past couple years, has what he terms an "open-ended contract" with the show's producers. He has no plans to do anything else, he says. "Yes, I sometimes miss being home," he says, "I miss my family. But I'm doing exactly what I want to be doing. I have the job of my dreams."

Mary Poppins plays at the Opera House, Boston, from February 17-March 20. For ticket information, visit the website:

Robert Israel writes about theater, arts, culture and travel. Follow him on Twitter at @risrael1a.