The Young People’s Theatre production of “Once Upon A Mattress” channels the talents of 29 thespians in grades 6-8 for three shows this weekend at the Sheridan Opera House.
While “Once Upon a Mattress” may suggest racy content, the musical was actually written as a fun, silly adaptation of the classic Hans Christian Andersen fairytale “The Princess and the Pea.”
“It makes ‘Mama Mia’ seem like a really deep musical,” said YPT Director Leah Heidenreich.
Originally opening off-Broadway in 1959 before expanding for the Broadway stage, “Once Upon a Mattress” starred Carol Burnett, which subsequently launched the famous comedian’s storied career.
The music was written by Mary Rodgers, daughter of Richard Rodgers of the famous Rodgers and Hammerstein duo.
“Mary Rodgers was a pioneer for women on that side of the table for musical theater,” said Heidenreich. “Even today, it’s very rare for women to compose musicals.”
The musical made history with another milestone, too.
“The original Queen Aggravain, the antagonist of the show, was originally played by an African American woman (Jane White), one of the first women of color to star on Broadway,” Heidenreich said.
Now in her third year as the Sheridan Arts Foundation’s YPT director, Heidenreich instructs young thespians from preschool through high school. She finds the non-competitive aspect of the YPT program particularly special.
“I have the same pool of kiddos who participate every year,” she said. “I get to rotate them in parts large and small so that they all have their turn to be ‘the star’ and be part of the ensemble which is the glue in any big musical.”
Over the years she has seen other youth theater programs where the same handful of kids always star, whereas in YPT, every child gets their “big moment to shine,” a core principle upon which the program was founded in 1999 by Jennifer Julia and Ronnie Palomar.
“It was really important that kids pay their dues, put in their time, work their way up,” explained Heidenreich. “And that’s really important because theater is about so much more than being the star or trying to be the star. Being put in different positions really teaches you to appreciate the craft and you learn a lot of different skills.”
Palomar was compelled to launch YPT when her daughter, Amy, who had a strong interest in acting, asked why, in the absence of a theater program in the school district, the Sheridan Opera House didn’t offer children’s theater. On a “shoestring budget,” the SAF debuted its first all-ages play, “Peter Pan,” in January 2000. Since then, YPT has seen three program directors and Palomar says that in the last several years, all the musicals have grown in size and maintain waiting lists for participants.
“Don't wait to sign up!” Palomar said.
In addition to the 29 actors performing in “Once Upon a Mattress” there is one middle school student and one high school student assisting backstage.
While she loves working with children of all ages, Heidenreich said middle school is her favorite age group to work with because they’re still children even though they’re becoming young adults.
“There’s still the childlike quality of not being scared to take risks and being silly and falling flat on their faces and trying a million new things,” she said. “Children are inherently not self-conscious, for the most part. But because they’re becoming young adults, you can really push them and set the bar higher. So you get the best of both worlds.”
The storyline of the play features Prince Dauntless the Drab (played by Holden Coppage) who is a mama’s boy to Queen Aggravain (played by Pippa Gorraiz) who is very possessive of him. The law of the land says that nobody can get married until the prince does. The queen brings in potential princess brides, forcing them to endure — and fail — rigged tests in order to marry her son. Everyone becomes frustrated until strong and funny Princess Winnifredthe Woebegone (played by Ryann Singer) arrives on the scene.
Cassidy Atherton and Kiara Warren, who star as the Minstrel and the Jester respectively, serve as the narrators of the show. “They’re just hilarious,” said Heidenreich.
“It’s a totally family-friendly show with tons of big musical numbers,” said Heidenreich. “A perfect introduction to theater for small children because it’s not too long, it’s fast-paced and it’s silly.”
“It’s a pleasure to see what these talented kids can do in such a short rehearsal period and especially right after taking off Thanksgiving week,” added Palomar. “All three nights have been selling out, so please buy your tickets in advance.”
Show times are this Friday, Saturday and Sunday, Dec. 6-8 at 6 p.m. Doors open at 5:30 each evening. Tickets are $12 for children 18 and under and $15 for adults and are available at sheridanoperahouse.com