Once upon an Edgartown School stage

Prince Dauntless (Luke McCracken) stands up to his mother Queen Aggravain (Lee Hayman) to protect Princess Winnifred (Alley Ellis). — Photo by Ralph Stewart

“Once Upon a Mattress,” the former Broadway show that gives a feminist twist to the popular fairy tale The Princess and the Pea, was presented last weekend at the Edgartown School by a very talented cast of junior high school students. Originally written and produced by members of an adult camp in the 1950s, the show has a lot going for it — a large, colorfully costumed cast, catchy Broadway tunes, broad comedy, and some memorable characters with terrifically descriptive names.

In the hands of theater veterans Donna Swift (stage director) and Beth Carr (musical director), the school’s production came across as a highly polished, well-acted spectacle that had audiences engaged from the opening notes.

The musical opened with an effective display of pageantry, as the large cast of 23 students paraded up the center aisle of the gymnasium/auditorium and made their bowing and curtsying introductions on stage in the same manner as a grand ball of another era. From then on, there was never a lull in this witty romp through the archetypal fairytale kingdom.

Ms. Swift’s deftness for directing comedy and for masterful choreography with a focus on physical humor was apparent from the outset. The seasoned director confesses to being tough during rehearsals and the results were obvious, as Saturday’s performance displayed a level of discipline and professionalism that belied the youth of the cast.

The dual narrators, the minstrel and jester — Charlotte Hammond and Sara Poggi, respectively — opened the show with the song “Many Moons Ago,” which describes the original Hans Christian Anderson fairytale and hints that there is more to the simple story than legend would have us believe. The two young ladies proved more than capable of providing the backbone of the show, and their voices were two of the standouts among a strong cast.

As the domineering Queen Aggravain, Lee Hayman was perfectly cast. Her haughty, regal bearing was played for laughs as she attempted to derail her son’s efforts of finding a suitable bride. As the likable, yet weak-willed Prince Dauntless, Luke McCracken won over the audience and proved the perfect foil for the strong personality of his would-be bride.

The witty “Opening for a Princess” was the first of five impressive all-ensemble musical numbers. The Prince laments his fate with the clever lines, “Alas, a lass is what I lack. I lack a lass, alas alack.” The chorus can sympathize, as Dauntless is not the only one suffering from the queen’s reluctance to see her son married. A royal edict has made it impossible for anyone in the kingdom to marry until the perfect match can be found for the prince — an unlikely outcome since the queen is intent on devising impossible tests for aspiring brides.

Sir Harry, nicely portrayed as the classic knight in shining armor by Renato Gomes, voluntarily sets off to find a princess who may be able to succeed where 12 others have failed. He returns with Winnifred, a plucky tomboy from a distant swampy kingdom with a questionable claim to royalty. Her entrance both shocks the queen and enchants the court as she arrives soaking wet after swimming the moat in her enthusiasm about meeting her prospective husband.

In the original Broadway production, a young Carol Burnett was launched into superstardom playing Princess Winnifred. Alley Ellis, who was cast in the school production, showed a similar gift for physical comedy, a big stage presence, and a talent for showstopping Broadway belting. Ms. Ellis is the daughter of Ms. Swift, who proved her comedic chops performing with the island improv group WIMP in the 80s and early 90s and, incidentally, played Queen Aggravain in her high school’s production of the play. Ms. Ellis seems to have inherited her mother’s love of hamming it up, as well as her innate comedic timing.

Some of the show’s biggest laughs come from Winnifred’s well turned solo in “Happily Ever After.” The frustrated princess laments her lack of assistance in her romantic plight. She compares her situation to that of Cinderella and Snow White. As the hapless Princess points out in a complaining aside, “Cinderella had outside help!” Of Snow White’s dwarf defenders she says, “Oh I grant you they were small. But there were seven of them — practically a regiment!”

Sir Harry and his lady-love, Larkin (Gabriella Hoxsie) provide the secondary story as a quarreling couple. The two are featured in a nice duet, with Ms. Hoxsie’s sweet soprano voice perfectly capturing her character’s yearning nature.

Another side story concerns the queen’s husband, the all but overlooked Silent King, who has lost his voice as the result of a curse. Ethan Donovan proves himself a natural mime as, with expertly executed expressive hand gestures, he demonstrates that the king not only manages to make himself understood, but also proves that, beyond his muteness, the henpecked king is a compassionate, wise, and even wily man.

The queen’s accomplice, the Wizard (played by Amadine Muniz), had few lines but provided a good sinister presence and, in the few lines she sang in a duet with the queen, proved to have a very good singing voice.

All of the actors in the larger roles were in the seventh and eighth grade, with the exception of Alex Habekost who played Princess #12. The sixth grader notes that she had to sacrifice some of her other extracurriculars temporarily to accommodate the schedule of three rehearsals per week for six weeks. She proved a commanding presence despite her age and diminutive size and, as the focus of the opening scene, gave an early indication of the quality of the cast.

The ambitious production was helped along with the assistance of a large crew which included high school students Mariah MacKenzie, Will Fligor, and Della Burke, who were recruited from Ms. Swift’s improv students. Mr. Fligor was trained to do sound while still attending the Edgartown School and has lent his talent to the school’s productions for five years.

Saturday’s show included a pre-show dinner in the gym/auditorium for which all 13 tables sold out and the rest of the house was filled to capacity.