As the plucky Princess Winnifred, Spring High School junior Makaila Heath, from left, acts alongside seniors Destiny Broussard, rear, and Josue Hernandez in the upcoming production of “Once Upon a Mattress,” running Jan. 24, 25, 26 and 28 in the school’s performing arts center.
HOUSTON – Jan. 18, 2019 – When the curtain goes up next week on Spring High School’s production of the musical comedy “Once Upon a Mattress,” the stage may look set for the start of a traditional fairy tale. But don’t let appearances fool you, warns Director of Theatre Marilyn Ocker. With performances at 7 p.m. on Jan. 24, 25, 26 and 28 in the school’s performing arts center, the show promises more than a few surprises.
“It’s a great story, a positive telling of how we shouldn’t judge people on the outside, that what’s going on on the inside is more important,” Ocker said during a break in a recent rehearsal, “and that a good person is a good person, no matter where they come from.”
“Mattress,” which first opened on Broadway in 1959, is set – as its prologue states – “Many moons ago, in a far-off place.” But what begins as a fairy tale retelling of the classic Princess and the Pea story quickly turns into a decidedly modern tale, one with unexpected twists and turns that will keep audiences – young and old – wondering what will happen next, even while they enjoy the show’s winning combination of soaring ballads and rollicking dance numbers.
“When you start out the play, the audience thinks, ‘Oh, it’s going to be a princess story,’” said senior Gwendolyn Penny, who along with fellow senior Makayla Pellum will play Lady Larken on alternating nights of the show. “But it merges and blends into something completely different.”
Junior Makaila Heath – a familiar face to Spring High School theater audiences – will bring her own high-energy stage presence and musical training to the role of Princess Winnifred, a part that helped launch a young Carol Burnett’s career when “Mattress” premiered on Broadway. As Winnifred, Heath arrives at the castle after hearing of the kingdom’s “Opening for a Princess” to marry the hapless Prince Dauntless – played by senior Josue Hernandez – and fulfill the law of the land which states that no one in the entire kingdom may marry until a suitable match is found for the prince.
Standing in the way of true love – and heading the princess off at every foreseeable turn – is the prince’s overbearing and overprotective mother, Queen Aggravain, played here with fiery relish — and many a stern glance — by senior Destiny Broussard. As the queen’s mute husband, King Sextimus the Silent, senior Matthew Flores taps into the age-old tradition of silent comedy made famous by actors like Buster Keaton, who himself played the role of Sextimus during the show’s 1960 national tour.
“As an actor, I usually try to change my voice to fit my character,” Flores said. “This guy doesn’t have a voice. That’s challenging, but it’s also fun.”
Several of the show’s characters are double cast in this production, a decision Ocker said was driven by a large number of talented students she wanted to highlight. In addition to Pellum and Penny who will alternate playing the role of Lady Larken, sophomore Christopher Aviles and junior Emmanuel Johnson will alternate in the role of the traveling Minstrel, who sets the scene and begins telling the story before revealing that he was there to witness what really happened.
Asked about the challenges of preparing two different roles – one lead character, one ensemble character – the students said that, despite the difficulties of added cues, blocking and choreography, the process had been a rewarding one.
“We both have our different, unique strategy,” Aviles said of working alongside Johnson to prepare their shared role. “We learn from that. You learn from each other.”
Johnson agreed, and added, “It’s a really good learning experience for creating a character.”
Pellum said that the unexpected developments in the story – and the way it undermines expectations – has been one of the most interesting parts about working on the show.
“It’s been kind of fun actually,” she said of working together with Penny on the role of Lady Larken, who, along with her beloved Sir Harry – played by senior Gabriel Saenz – works behind the scenes to help bring Dauntless and Winnifred together and save the day for everyone.
With more than 40 students in the cast filling the 60-foot-wide stage, the show’s designers and technical crew have also been hard at work getting costumes, scenery, sound and lighting ready for opening night.
“It’s been a challenge,” said the show’s stage manager – and Lion Players Theatre Company president – senior Dylanlea Shaftner. “It’s a big set. I think this is the biggest one we’ve had for a very long time, and the tech crew has been phenomenal. I’m very proud of them all.”
Penny, who also serves at the troupe’s communication liaison, said that audiences of all ages can expect a great story told with plenty of humor, music and a strong message of acceptance.
“This show is so much more than a princess story” she said. “It’s a story of being yourself and not changing for anyone else. It shows the audience that you don’t need to conform to anyone’s standards in order to be successful, and to do things in your own, honest way, and I think that’s a very important message to send out.”
Tickets for “Once Upon a Mattress” are $12 for adults and $10 for students, and can be ordered online at www.lionplayerstheatrecompany.com or purchased at the door prior to each evening’s performance.
In addition to the show itself, the group will also be hosting a special one-day event, “Once Upon a Breakfast,” from 9 to 11 a.m. this Saturday, Jan 19 in the Spring High School cafeteria. Members of the show’s cast will be serving up a breakfast of pancakes, sausage, juice, milk and coffee and interacting in character with attendees. Children (and their parents) are encouraged to dress up as knights and princesses for the event, which also serves as a fundraiser for the theater department. Tickets for the breakfast are $5 for ages 3 and up, and can be purchased at the door or online.