Con O'Shea-Creal remembers the first time he was 30 feet above the stage, upside-down, tap dancing against the proscenium arch's top to the song "Step in Time" in the national tour of the musical "Mary Poppins."
"I thought, 'This is awesome," he says. "Everything I've worked for has led to this moment."
O'Shea-Creal has been with the national tour — which begins its run Friday at Hartford's Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts — since February as a member of the ensemble and as understudy for the role of Bert.
But beginning in Hartford, he makes the role his own when he takes over the part for this leg of the tour.
O'Shea-Creal has been tap dancing since he was a 6-year-old boy growing up in Lincoln, Neb.
"How I started in dance is the classic 'A Chorus Line' story," says the 26-year-old actor who is receiving his first high-profile, high-stepping role in this national tour. "I went with my sister to her ballet class. She went on to do other things. I stayed."
He received his BFA at the University of Oklahoma, moved to New York and then started singing and dancing in a series of productions at regional theaters around the country.
The proscenium at the Bushnell is not that unfamiliar to the performer, at least from a more grounded perspective. Creal was in the ensemble of "White Christmas" when it played the Bushnell a few seasons back. His other Connecticut credit was in "Annie Get Your Gun" several years back at the Goodspeed Opera House in East Haddam.
O'Shea-Creal remembers seeing "Mary Poppins" for the first time in 2009, three years into the show's run on Broadway. By then every hoofer in town knew about the dance-tastic nature of the show and especially "the number" which comes midway through the show's second act and rivals the title character's air-born entrance.
"You're already thrilled by the choreography in the ['Step in Time'] number even before the wall climb," he says, "especially if you're a tap dancer."
Still, he wasn't prepared for what he saw — and shared as a member of the astonished audience.
"From that moment forward I had my eye on doing that role," he says.
He auditioned 10 times for the ensemble/understudy role before he was finally hired for the tour. He soon began his weekly rehearsals to understudy the role of Bert — and to learn "the wall climb."
"It's really an art how they teach it," he says. "It took a few weeks before I had it under my belt. "
He says the mechanics of the number "are such a testament to human ingenuity," but didn't want to give too much away on the technical specifics on how the feat is accomplished.
Midway through the song he slips into the wings — the rest of the ensemble is dancing away — as the backstage crew helps him remove his jacket, puts him into a harness and performs a series of safety check. He towels himself off, takes a drink of water and heads back to the stage for his two-minute trip.
"It's counter-intuitive," he says. "You have to push away from the platform when you're upside down. It's funny how you take gravity for granted. You just have to trust that the harness and the cable is there for you. You just have to get used to it. You also have to remember just to breathe cause that's the most important thing. Half the battle is making it look easy.
"But it's the first step that's the hardest. Getting the foot on the wall and taking that first step. Gavin [Lee, who originated the part in London and Broadway] had a run-up to the wall.
"Walking up the [stage] left side, I'm excited because I know when I get to the top I get to stop and tap dance — which is my favorite thing to do.
"When I come down, it's even more glorious because you can take in everyone down below, the audience and the ensemble that is working so hard with really cool choreography. But it does feel good, too, to get your feet back in the ground."
And the reaction from the audience?
"Some nights they clap right away as I go up and other times they're completely silent — but not in a negative way. Like they're in utter shock. But they always lose it when you get down. That's when the roof goes off the place."
For a moment, he is allowed to break "the fourth wall" and give a look to the audience as if to say, "That's pretty cool, huh?"
"But the applause is not just for me but for all of the creative minds in the show," he says.
And for others who helped him along the way, he feels.
"I'm the oldest of five kids and we couldn't afford much. I think back of raking those leaves and shoveling snow for dance lessons. It's especially special for my family, who has worked so hard to help me in college and then when I went to New York City and surviving those bouts of unemployment. They've taken on a burden with me. So this is such a joy for them, too, when they see me up on stage."
Way up on stage.
MARY POPPINS plays Mortensen Hall at the Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts, 166 Capitol Ave, Hartford from Sept. 14 to 23. Performances are Tuesdays through Fridays at 7:30 p.m.; Saturdays at 2 and 7:30 p.m. and Sundays at 1 and 6:30. Tickets are $20 to $75, not including fees. Information: 860-987-5900 and http://www.bushnell.org.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun