Not even magical nanny Mary Poppins is flying as high these days as Paula Potosky at Rainbow Stage.
The former high school teacher, who made an abrupt career change when she turned 30 three years ago, has breezed up through the ranks of city musical performers to the top of the list for Rainbow's debut production of Mary Poppins, opening Friday in Kildonan Park.
"The biggest challenge I have is to keep Mary Poppins looking stern and no-nonsense enough because I can't stop smiling," says Potosky, 33. "Inside I'm welling over with joy,"
As the proud Mary sits among the sea of empty yellow seats under Rainbow's dome prior to rehearsals, Potosky's memory turns back to the first time she took her place in one of those seats as a wide-eyed eight-year-old watching Oliver! in 1988.
"I remember dreaming then about doing that some day," she says, staring at the stage.
The star of that show was a precocious 12-year-old triple threat named Jeremy Kushnier, who made his debut as a lead actor and embarked on the decade-long road to Broadway stardom that ended with Footloose in 1998.
That path has since become well-worn by Rainbow veterans, most recently by Samantha Hill, who played Belle in Beauty and the Beast and three years later was cast as Christine in the Broadway production of The Phantom of the Opera.
"There is an insane legacy of performers that have come through here," she says. "I think this is the opportunity of a lifetime. Playing a title role is a dream come true."
Potosky's casting validates her desire to re-invent herself as a musical theatre performer. The St. James-bred soprano had been feeling unfulfilled, despite leading what she called a beautiful life with a supportive husband, Korbin, and a happy new daughter, Wren. She had rolled through Silver Heights Collegiate and the University of Manitoba, where she graduated in 2004 with degrees in music and education, before immediately following her parents into teaching. After four years at Glenlawn Collegiate she left on maternity leave to give birth to Wren and then returned to teaching half-time at Maples Collegiate. It would appear she had it all.
But something was missing and turning 30 in 2010 left Potosky unable to ignore the long-suppressed urge to take a shot at singing and dancing on stage.
"I had this itch to perform those five years I was teaching," says the St. Boniface resident. "I don't know if I was waiting for it to go away, but it never did. It got worse. I was no spring chicken, so I thought if I was going to do it, I had better do it now."
Potosky auditioned that year for the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre production of Irving Berlin's White Christmas, in which she landed an ensemble role and quickly discovered what had been missing. Her love of teaching is deep-rooted and a big part of who she is, but...
"It's not everything for me," she Potosky, who still teaches at the Royal Winnipeg Ballet and more than 20 students privately.
Last summer, her time in the spotlight increased with a solid supporting role as Grace Farrell in Rainbow's Annie. This past season she appeared in Follies for Dry Cold Productions during SondheimFest and then held her own in the RMTC's Warehouse's The Penelopiad among a top-rank local cast of actresses.
"I gave up a lot of security to be truly happy," says the 2000 winner of the Tudor Bowl at the Winnipeg Music Festival. "I feel more myself."
Earlier this year, when Potosky showed up to audition for the Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious musical, director Ann Hodges found her to be, like Mary Poppins, "practically perfect in every way." Hodges said it was no contest who would play the wonder-working nanny toting the trademark umbrella, the bottomless carpetbag and that spoonful of sugar.
"Paula came in into rehearsals the model of discipline, generosity, creativity and joy, which Mary Poppins herself is all about," says Hodges. "She's kind of the perfect fit. Historically, the leading lady should lead. It's not about having the biggest part, she should lead the company in the rehearsal hall. She has been leading by example."
For the soft-spoken Potosky, performing was an opportunity to practise what she had been preaching to her music students. She had been talking the talk for a long time and found it gratifying to finally be walking the walk.
The beloved musical, which is based on a series of novels by Australian-born author Pamela Lyndon Travers, is new to Rainbow Stage, the first Canadian company to secure the rights to the new stage version of the 1964 movie starring Julie Andrews. Story writer Julian Fellowes, the creator of the PBS series Downtown Abbey, drew from the film, the books and mixed in new characters, new plot points and new songs.
Not to fear, all those bubbly Sherman brothers songs like Chim Chim Cher-ee, Jolly Holiday and A Spoonful of Sugar are still included.
First-year Rainbow artistic director Ray Hogg sees the story about an unhappy father struggling to balance a long-suffering wife and two neglected children with work responsibilities to be timeless.
"A large number of under-30s now come from divorced families," says Hogg, whose family recently joined him here from Toronto. "Essentially, Mary Poppins is the story of a family on the verge of being broken. They are a dysfunctional family and this magical being comes into their lives to help figure out how to be a family again."
One of Potosky's favourite songs from the show is Anything Can Happen, which speaks to her about her bid to fulfil her musical theatre destiny. It includes the lines, "Broaden your horizon/Open different doors/You may find a you there you never knew was yours."
Does that anything-can-happen optimism include pursuing her second career all the way to Broadway?
"It has crossed my mind," she says. "My husband and I still need to talk about this. I haven't given up on that idea."