I don't mean to alarm you, but during my recent interview with Heather Herkelman, the area performer revealed something shocking and rather upsetting: Hawaii, it turns out, isn't perfect.

"There's not much of a music scene or theatre scene," says Herkelman, who returned in February from a year and a half spent living in Honolulu. "It's beautiful, of course, and there's just a laid-back happiness, a peacefulness, that made me want to live there. And they have a lot of Hawaiian music, obviously, from their heritage. But that's about it. And yeah - not a lot of theatre."

This may not seem sufficient reason for anyone to actually leave the Aloha State, and listing additional reasons for her return to Iowa, Herkelman does say, "I missed my family a lot. The holidays were hard, and it's so far away and so expensive ... ." But if you're a fan of musical theatre, it's hard not to think that Hawaii's loss is our gain.

A native of Clinton, Iowa, now residing in Davenport, Herkelman made her community-theatre debut in 2004, playing Liesl von Trapp in Quad City Music Guild's The Sound of Music. (Unlike her character, the performer was actually 17 going on 18.) Unfortunately, I didn't catch that production, but after seeing her Music Guild follow-up - portraying the dizzy, squawking Erma in 2007's Anything Goes - I never made the mistake of missing a Herkelman stage performance again.

Boasting radiant presence, intimidating acting chops, and absolute comic fearlessness as the gangster moll of Cole Porter's musical classic, and delivering a rendition of "Buddie, Beware" so vocally dazzling that you regretted it was her lone solo in the production, Herkelman stole the show from a bunch of practiced show-stealers. The following year, we were treated to an entire season with Herkelman as a member of the Timber Lake Playhouse's summer-stock company. Her area credits continued to amass with a lovely, spirited take on Laurey in Countryside Community Theatre's 2010 Oklahoma!, and a viciously funny Amber von Tussle in the Circa '21 Dinner Playhouse's 2011 Hairspray. Then ... Hawaii.

But now, Herkelman has returned to her Music Guild roots in what she calls "a dream part for any female": the practically perfect title character in Mary Poppins, running August 7 through 16 at Moline's Prospect Park Auditorium. "I saw the show on Broadway and it was amazing," says Herkelman, "so I was obviously pleased - and really surprised - to get it."

Mary Poppins' Tony-winning Broadway production was hardly Herkelman's first experience with the Great White Way. "My family is from New York," she says, "so we visited a lot, and went to Broadway shows from the time I was very young. Phantom [of the Opera] was my favorite, but I saw Wicked, Ragtime ... . So many. More than I can count."

Herkelman, however, says that despite her early exposure to musicals, her own nascent talents "kind of came out of nowhere. Nobody in my family sang, acted - anything. But I had always wanted to perform. Always."

Heather HerkelmanAt Clinton High School, Herkelman began her theatrical career playing Sandy in Grease, Hedy LaRue in How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying, and - in an early prep for 2007 - an ensemble member in Anything Goes. She then attended Des Moines' Drake University and, on her way to a 2009 degree with majors in vocal performance and music education, portrayed Hope Cladwell in Urinetown, April in Company, and ... Reno Sweeney in Anything Goes. ("Yeah," Herkelman says with a laugh, "that show is following me everywhere.")

Yet while she entered Drake "thinking I would go into musical theatre," Herkelman says she quickly realized "it's so hard to perform professionally and also have a consistent, normal life, you know? And it's so hard to get into."

Instead, as she's certified to teach students from kindergarten through 12th grade, she taught elementary-school music in Clinton, which Herkelman calls "a good learning opportunity, but I don't know if elementary is for me, personally. It takes a very special person, and a very patient person. And I can be that. But 30 five-year-olds in one room can be a little ... challenging."

However, between her university years, her teaching engagement, and jobs that have included administrative work for Smart Toyota and marketing for Hilton Hotels & Resorts (the career that brought her to Hawaii), Herkelman has also managed to secure time for local and regional theatre, "which is really fun for me and makes me happy." She's also enjoyed some truly varied experiences, such as her tenure at Timber Lake, where she appeared in West Side Story, You Can't Take It with You, and All Shook Up back-to-back-to-back.

"That was so fun, but exhausting," Herkelman says of her 2008 summer. "We rehearsed from 10 to 10, for two weeks, for the first show, then opened that show while starting rehearsals for the next show. And we'd do that over and over all summer. We'd rehearse the new show from 10 to four, then perform the previous show at night ... and try to get rest at the same time."

With a laugh, she says, "It was great, because you really have to change your mindset going from one thing to another like that, and really focus on what you're doing in that moment. And we stayed in cabins and got very close by the end of the summer ... . It was like camp for adults."

Herkelman also experienced the opposite of Timber Lake's dovetailing-production schedule in Circa '21's Hairspray, which - as she'd never performed a run lasting more than two weeks - allowed her to play the villainous, platinum blonde Amber five times a week for eight weeks straight.

Heather Herkelman and John Whitson in Mary Poppins"I loved that," she says. "I always felt, with other shows, we would rehearse so much, and then it would open, and then it would close so fast, and I'd be like, 'What?! I did all this work and got so involved and became that person and it's over?!' So I loved that it ran for so long, and that I got to stay in that character for a while. Amber's such a great snotty girl."

She does admit that in the midst of such a lengthy run, "You can get a little relaxed - a little too comfortable. But as soon as you start feeling that, you just have to give yourself a little kick in the butt, and get that energy back. I mean, it might be your 15th performance, but for the people out there, it's the first time they're seeing it. And I always get so depressed when shows are over that it's easy to think, 'I have to cherish this moment now!'"

Mary Poppins is the "moment" currently being cherished, in part, says Herkelman, because she had no expectation of being cast as its titular, magical nanny. Upon returning from Hawaii, "I auditioned for all three [Music Guild] shows this summer. I obviously put Mary as a role I'd like to play, but I wasn't sure how they were going to cast her - whether they were going to cast someone older. I also really wanted to play the fiancée in Young Frankenstein, because that's right down my character alley. I tend to play a lot of those ditsy kinds of parts." She laughs. "I don't know what that says about me."

The Mary Poppins lead, however, did go to Herkelman, and she says she's not only relishing the opportunity to play such an iconic role, but one that's closer in spirit to the Mary of P.L. Travers' books than the 1965 film's Julie Andrews incarnation.

"It follows the story of the movie," says Herkelman of Mary Poppins on-stage, "but there are some new musical numbers, and it goes a lot more in-depth with the characters. You see a lot more character development in Mr. Banks and Winifred and the kids, and Mary herself is a little darker - in a good way." With a laugh, she adds that the recent film Saving Mr. Banks "gives you an idea of how P.L. Travers wanted things a little less happy than they were in the Disney version, and that's what this is like. It's very close to the book."

That said, Herkelman does understand the importance of not veering from the Disney blueprint too drastically - a point underscored by the blonde performer opting to dye her hair brunette for the role.

"It's a little difficult," she says, "but I think, to a certain extent, you have to stay with what people expect while also trying to put your own spin on things. Especially with Disney. I mean, kids are coming. You don't want to do too much of a spin and have them not like it and say, 'That doesn't sound like her! That doesn't look like her!'"

But no matter what spin Herkelman and company put on Mary Poppins, the movie's young fans should be relieved by at least one element of director Harold Truitt's production: Mary Poppins will indeed fly.

"I'm so excited about that," says the grinning Herkelman. "I can't wait. Up until we open, I'll probably be begging to go higher and faster, because I'm kind of a daredevil that way. 'Come on! Higher! Can we do spins?!'"

 

Mary Poppins wll be staged at Quad City Music Guild's Prospect Park Auditorium (1584 34th Avenue, Moline) August 7 through 16, and information and tickets are available by calling (309)762-6610 or visiting QCMusicGuild.com.

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