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Friday, March 24, 2006

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Once Upon a Mattress is definitely no sleeper

The Princess (Lucy King) sleeps on 20 mattresses as Prince Dauntless (Tommy Veitch) holds the enormous pea that threatens her rest. (Photo by Nancy Roberts)
Right on time, the lights went down. Music teacher Megan Fitzharris, costumed as a herald, appeared to welcome the audience to the "16th century," and requested everyone to assist in the illusion of time past in Once Upon a Mattress by turning off all electronic devices, "as they do not exist." And the 2006 seventh-grade play began.

Two things stood out about this event: its enormity and its quality. Ms. Fitzharris and an obviously dedicated crew of teachers and parents provided direction, participation and guidance for every aspect of theater production, and they did this for a student cast and crew that comprised the whole seventh grade. The result was an example of educational theater that was impressive in every way.

Once Upon a Mattress is a frothy, goofy show full of physical comedy and broad humor. Timing and focus are critical, and nobody put a foot wrong in this production. Costumes, sets, and lighting were colorful and beautifully rendered. Every member of the cast was fully and constantly in the moment, every one realizing the importance of creating a stage picture, a specific mood or a reaction to action. The choruses were particularly precise: there were several musical numbers that required unison clapping, quick, reverberative effects, syncopation and more, and each group was right on target. Dancers in the pre-show, post-intermission and show numbers achieved an accuracy and spirit that gave the play just the right ambiance. Costumed pit musicians, known as the "Court Musicians," brought the audience into the time and tone of the play with their 16

Lady Larken (Raquel de Alderete) and Sir Harry (Jon Mayer) sing "Yesterday I Loved You." (Photo by Nancy Roberts)
Hans Christian Andersen's tale of "The Princess and the Pea" is the foundation for the plot of this musical. The "mattress" in question is actually a pile of 20 mattresses, under which the Queen places a small pea. She declares that only a true princess would be able to feel the pea under all those mattresses, and only a true princess may marry her son, Prince Dauntless the Drab. She puts Princess Winnifred ("Fred") to this impossible test, rigging it even further by forcing the court to perform "The Spanish Panic," a wild, flailing flamenco-style dance number designed to exhaust the princess so that she will sleep soundly on her mattresses and feel nothing. A large group of dancers thrashed all over the stage for this number, all in step and coordinated, and not only did nobody get hurt, but the effect was hilarious.

A pair of rascals, the Minstrel and the Jester, sings wryly to narrate the story and move the plot along. The musical narrator is a common device in American musical comedy, providing the actor with a chance to shine in a comic supporting role. The roles were played respectively by Bo Graham and Cam Reid, who knew exactly what to do with their assignment. Right away they established not only their characters' friendship, but also their complicity in foiling the Queen's mattress test. Their music was well sung, and their interplay was reminiscent of Tom and Dick Smothers: comfortable, perfectly timed, and masterful. They played in some scenes with Tim Lamere, whose Silent King (he was under a curse and therefore mute) used grand gestures to mime his lines. The trio declared their camaraderie in the amusing "The Minstrel, the Jester, and I."

From left to right, the Jester (Cam Reid), the Silent King (Tim Lamere) and the Minstrel (Bo Graham) sing "The Minstrel, the Jester and I." (Nancy Roberts)


Almost every musical has a subplot, personified by two supporting characters, usually lovers. Will and Ado Annie from Oklahoma and Anita and Bernardo from West Side Story are examples. In Once Upon a Mattress, they are Lady Larken and Sir Harry, played by Raquel de Alderete and Jon Mayer. No one in the court, it seems, may marry until Prince Dauntless does, so these two, who sing a enchanting ballad called, "Yesterday I Loved You," have a special stake in ensuring the success of Princess Fred in the Queen's test. DeAlderete and Mayer provided excellent support to the leading characters while establishing their own relationship, acting an argument and making up in song, in charming, droll fashion. In the opening performance, they were tested themselves, by a light that failed to fade out so they could exit. Both actors took the error in stride and remained relaxed until the light faded to black.

Tommy Veitch's Prince Dauntless began as an appealing crybaby, whining to his mother, the Queen, about his desire to marry, and especially to marry Princess Fred. The Queen, played with deliciously muscular command by Val Caddell and assisted by her delectably weasely Wizard (John McNamara), was no small antagonist. Veitch could have been annoying in his role, but the audience could not help but like him, thanks to the amiable, boy-next-door personality he portrayed. In the end, when all was happily resolved, he assumed command (reversing the curse and enabling his father, the King, to speak and his mother, the Queen to become mute) convincingly and authoritatively.

The show's linchpin is Princess Fred, who arrives on the scene looking anything but princess-like, after swimming the moat to reach the palace. Originated on Broadway by Carol Burnett, this role demands exact comic timing, enormous energy, power and sweetness. Lucy King, a young actress with all of these abilities, added to them a big voice, an infectious laugh, and a smile that lit the entire auditorium.
The Jesters


What happened here? Kids learned something of concentration, self-discipline, the arts of theater, management, leadership, teamwork, and problem solving. Parents and teachers demonstrated cooperation and support. Everyone worked very hard and had a lot of fun. Friendships were formed, memories were made. And Carlisle had a chance to see a very impressive, imaginative, and thoroughly entertaining production of Once Upon a Mattress.

Members of the Court dance "The Spanish Panic." (Nancy Roberts)

All photos by Nancy Roberts


2006 The Carlisle Mosquito