In our youths, many of us enjoyed reading the classic fairy tales by the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen. But do you remember any that began with an out-of-wedlock pregnancy or a loud, fearless princess strong enough to swim moats and stand up to overbearing queens? Yet that is the hilarious, updated version of Andersen’s “The Princess and the Pea” (1835) we got in Western Albemarle High School Theatre Ensemble’s fabulous production of Once Upon a Mattress, with music by Mary Rodgers and lyrics by Marshall Barer, on the weekend of March 16-18. This re-envisioning of the classic tale premiered in 1959 with Carol Burnett in the leading role, offering a decidedly 60s, gender-bending (dare I say the fem- word?) view of woman’s role and capabilities. As Caitlin Pitts’ Director’s Notes point out, “Winnifred shows us … that true nobility comes from being true to oneself, not from commanding power or wearing a crown.”
This clever fairy tale parody, with assistant direction by Olivia Gallmeyer and Sierra Reynolds, vocal direction by Amber Blakovich assisted by Chloe Horner, and a 30-plus student orchestra directed by Joel Hartshorn, featured a cast and crew of 130 from both Henley Middle School and WAHS. The show was dedicated to choral teacher Eric Betthauser, who died in a car accident on November 22, 2016. Thursday night’s proceeds, as well as donations collected all weekend at the door or mailed to WAHS, will support a scholarship in Betthauser’s honor to benefit students pursuing the arts after high school. With lively choreography by Becca Vourvoulas assisted by Arina Bratkovska and artful program design by Laura Bendick (who also served as stage manager), this rollicking production would have been right up Betthauser’s alley.
Sweet-voiced tenor Tristan Rose as the Minstrel, promising to tell us the real story of the well-known “Princess and the Pea,” begins by explaining the underlying thorny situation: the kingdom is living under a curse. No loving couples can be married until Prince Dauntless the Drab finds a wife, but his smother-mother, Queen Aggravain, has devised impossible “princess” tests so difficult that none of the twelve applicants so far has been able to pass them. Moreover, King Sextimus has been struck dumb and will not be released until “the mouse devours the hawk.” When Sir Harry discovers that his beloved, Lady Larken, is pregnant, he recognizes that they need to marry ASAP and sets off to find the “true” princess that the Queen claims to be seeking. The large chorus of courtiers then sings “An Opening for a Princess,” naively declaring that the ideal princess should be “dainty and delicate as a dragonfly’s wing.”
Cutter Mendenhall as Prince Dauntless was simultaneously glum and eager as he begged his mother to let him grow up and marry. Evolving from a hen-pecked wimp to a courageous young man by the end of the show, Mendenhall’s lovely voice and agile dancing won the audience to his side. Indigo Witt gave an outstanding performance as the self-centered and condescending Queen Aggravain, who disdains her silent but lecherous husband, and seems to have no intention of ever finding a suitable wife for her beloved son. But Stuart Schill as Sir Harry—who nearly stole the show with his fine acting and exquisite singing voice—comes through and finds a princess, who will come in at #13 and set in motion the undoing of the curse. In one of many ironies in the show, #13 is the lucky number for the entire royal court.
Into this raucous melee arrives Princess Winnifred the Woebegone, played by Lauren Rider. Too impatient to wait for the drawbridge, she swims across the moat. Winnifred (nicknamed Fred)’s outspoken manner and physical prowess are the complete opposite of the dainty portrait of a princess painted in the opening song. But the prince is rightly swept off his feet. Dauntless and Winnifred make a refreshingly upside down couple. He admires her strength, both physical and emotional, and she is attracted to his gentleness. Rider has an outsized talent and a Broadway-ready voice—powerful, pitch perfect, melodic, and a pleasure to listen to. She brought down the house as she bellowed “I’m Shy,” and delighted us with “The Swamps of Home.” Some might say she overdid it a bit as she channeled Burnett, but she did it so well that no one cared. I only wish she had softened a bit more by the end. The multi-talented Rider was also named a Rising Star for Visual Arts by the Piedmont Council of the Arts, along with Allie Morris for music and Jacob Chang-Rascle for photography. Morris played in the musical’s orchestra.
Not only does Fred survive the Queen’s most devious test yet—requiring the ability to detect a pea under 20 mattresses—but also her strength rubs off on Dauntless, who at last finds the courage to stand up to his mother and tell her that he intends to marry Winnifred with or without permission. This, as it turns out, is the meaning of “the mouse must devour the hawk,” and the spell of silence over the King is broken—and passed on to the Queen, bringing comfort and joy to all concerned.
Stuart Schill as Sir Harry and Ryann Sheehy as Lady Larken were perfect together, providing a foil to the troubled central couple and setting a sweet, romantic mood with their beautifully sung duet and the catchiest tune in the show, “In a Little While.” Julian Waters as the silent King, Benjamin Jessee as the Jester, and Tristan Jones as the minstrel made a zanily slapstick trio reminiscent of Danny Kaye or Donald O’Connor as they sing “The Minstrel, the Jester, and I.” Tyler Gale was a suitably sinister wizard who aids the Queen in her various plots to ensnare the princesses.
The medieval costumes—some borrowed from Monticello High School and some designed by Pitts with student help and sewn by dedicated parents—were nothing short of spectacular, creating a lovely color palette of greens, blues, and earth tones. The set, designed by students led by Malinda Smith, did a good job of creating the impression of a castle, and featured a stage apron and box moat decorated with waves, in and out of which Winnifred could emerge.
All in all, Once Upon a Mattress was an expertly produced and completely satisfying performance, showcasing the wealth of talent WAHS students have to offer. Kudos to the WAHS Drama Dept., which now boasts classes in musical theatre as well as technical theatre! Watch for a musical revue planned for later this spring.