Excitement was crackling in the air at the Performing Arts Center in Oak Bluffs Sunday night as Island Theatre Workshop actors and crew gathered to put the finishing touches on “Once Upon a Mattress,” the group’s summer season mainstage centerpiece.
The fanciful Rodgers and Hammerstein musical comedy cavorts onto the PAC stage beginning tomorrow night, Friday, July 19, 7:30 pm with a vibrant cast of 34 talented community actors bringing Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Princess and the Pea” fairytale to fresh, rollicking life.
Music director George Luton’s brilliant piano artistry filled the theater with toe-tapping sound. On stage Jen Maxner as Princess Winnifred in her private chamber bounded onto a table, sang of her dreams for “happily ever after,” then danced nonstop at the ball with her castlemates as they futilely try to tire her out enough to fall asleep atop her towering 20-mattress (count ‘em!) bed.
Barely slowed down by losing his voice to a witch’s curse, Roy Lange, the rather bumbling King Sextimus, let his body and sign language do the talking with amusing eloquence. Augie Padua as Prince Dauntless yearned, moonstruck, over his beloved Princess, singing of “a girl named Fred.”
Show director Kevin Ryan sat in the empty, darkened theatre keeping an eye on his voluminous notes, calling out stage directions, humming along with the tunes, applauding enthusiastically and praising actors and singers for jobs well done.
Shelley Brown as the imperious Queen Aggravain burst onto the stage, shouting out commands to her subjects.
“It’s a show about really strong women!” observed Ryan admiringly. “She’s not an evil queen. She’s just a powerhouse of an individual who has to run a kingdom.”
Another plucky gal, Jennifer Knight’s Lady Larken, concocts a hazardous disappearing act, determined to do it alone, though she finally accepts a gallant assist.
The plot is intricate and circuitous as befits any wacky fairy tale. Here’s something for everyone, all the quirky characters and story twists needed to keep the action moving and the audience laughing.
The kingdom is in disarray, castle brimming with intrigue and discord. There’s romance and scandal, gossip, deception, mistaken identity. There’s lovely yawning Winnifred, besotted Prince Dauntless, the speechless king, the loud-mouthed queen, a baby on the way, a failed escape, and even a giant enchanted nightingale enlisted to whistle a lullaby. But will that magical lullaby work? Stay tuned!
“Although there are instances of some mature subject matter, the overall telling of this timeless tale is a real family event,” said Ryan, asked why this show was picked to highlight the 2019 season. “We all know the story of ‘The Princess and the Pea,’ but do we know the true story? Our Minstrel was there, and tells us. What can be better fun for entire families than kings and queens, princes and princesses, castles, lords, terrifically smart music, and a ‘happily ever after’ ending?”
The musical had its Broadway premiere in 1959 with a 244-performance run. It went on to a Tony nomination, London shows, a Broadway revival, and television adaptations. It has been produced on stages large and small ever since.
An air of youthful effervescence suffuses the two-act show, thanks largely to the crowd of younger actors. From age 8 through teens, many of the fresh-faced gang grew up participating in children’s theatre. Some were involved in high school drama like choreographer/actor Leandra Seward and Jester Curtis Fisher (Tony in last year’s “West Side Story”). George Luton studied at Children’s Theatre, became its musical director in 2015, now is directing music for his second mainstage show. Others are jubilantly participating for the first time. Similarly, the adult cast includes 10 ITW veterans, while others are newcomers.
“For me the high point has been working with such a diverse group,” said Ryan. “It’s wonderful to construct a show while teaching both younger and older actors.
“We at ITW are dedicated to teaching and performance, and with a cast of 34 ranging in age from 8 to 70-plus, this program gives a great opportunity to accomplish both those missions. We are a blend of seasoned professional theater people along with students and community members who are just stepping onto the big stage. It is all so exciting!”
The cast and crew lists contain names familiar to Island audiences along with others new to the local stage. Lead roles include Jen Maxner as Princess Winnifred, Shelley Brown as Queen Agravain. Jennifer Knight is Lady Larken, and Chris Buehler plays the chivalrous Sir Harry, Lady Larken’s sweetheart. Augie Padua and Roy Lange, Vineyard-connected actors living in New York City, play Prince Dauntless and King Sextimus respectively.
The colorful Jester is Curtis Fisher, and Brad Austin is the Minstrel. Familiar Vineyard neighbor Ken Ivory plays the Wizard.
Austin also serves as associate director. Ken Romero is choreographer with Leandra Seward. Sebastian Corwin is stage manager, JoAnne Ryan house manager. Elizabeth St. John Villard handles light design and operation. Lead costumer is Nayr.
Vineyard fans recall the show’s earlier staging here by ITW 18 years ago. Featuring the inimitable ITW veteran actor Don Lyons as the muted King Sextimus, the show was directed by now retired artistic director Lee Fierro, with Peter Boak as music director. Sabrina Luening was the sleep-deprived princess, and Ryan played the Minstrel/Narrator, built sets, and worked closely with Fierro.
“I learn something new from these people almost every day,” commented Ryan. “And I’m reminded every day of my mentor, Lee Fierro.”
Ryan said he remains in close contact with the retired director, who now lives off-Island, and consults with her on theater matters: “She still has such an eye for theater, she is still a mentor to me. She’s with our company all the time.”
Spellbinding sets from a turreted castle to ornate ballroom and pastoral countryside will transport audiences into this land of zany make-believe.
Despite the logistical challenges of working with a cast of 34 and a large crew, moving among four different rehearsal sites, Ryan said all had gone smoothly as the 10-week rehearsal marathon draws to a close. Ryan had a heartfelt shout-out for Brad Austin, who worked to coordinate complicated schedules while working behind the scenes on set building and more.
“It is truly a community-based program,” said Ryan about the venerable ITW. “No one is more important than anyone else. We base everything we do on respect, tolerance, and gentleness.”
“I feel that ITW is in a new place,” said Ryan. “I see ITW reinvented, but all the old values are still here — it’s people first!”
Evening shows July 19, 20, 21, 22, 25, 26, and 27, 7:30 pm. One matinee Sunday, July 21, 3 pm. Tickets are available at ticketsmv.com; call 508-737-8550 for more information.