Review: Young cast brings spunky 'Once Upon a Mattress' to life

Children's Theatre of Annapolis began its 51st season and third year in the theater on Bay Head Road with such a polished production of "Once Upon a Mattress" that it renewed my belief in magic. If a 30-member cast of 12- to 18-year-olds can deliver a top-notch production in a state-of-the-art Annapolis theater created on a former Nike missile site, then miracles can happen.

Such productions require hard work, which everyone at CTA apparently thrives on, from a crew of tireless parents and friends laboring behind the scenes to the newest young performers onstage.

This musical based on Hans Christian Andersen's "The Princess and the Pea" was originally written for a camp show by Mary Rodgers, daughter of composer Richard Rodgers, and has been entertaining audiences since it first appeared on Broadway in 1959. CTA's show amused audiences full of friends, family members and fans during eight performances.

"Mattress" provided plenty of action and fun for the youngest audience members and had enough vaudeville and comedy laced with spice to amuse adults.

The story of Prince Dauntless, who needs to find a bride before anyone else in the kingdom can wed, is amusing as Dauntless' mother Queen Aggravain keeps all candidates at a distance by inventing a series of seemingly impassable roadblocks.

Princess Winifred arrives in time to give hope to the pregnant Lady Larken, who is more than ready to wed Sir Harry. Will Winifred pass the test to prove her royal gentility so that all eager couples can finally marry?

Director/choreographer Jason Kimmell brought unsuspected cheer and currency to the plot while proving that he knows how to inspire the members of his young cast to deliver their best performances cheerfully.

Kimmell was aided by Wes Livingston, who made his successful CTA debut, leading six musicians in the pit to make each of the 15 songs in the score sparkle, while keeping the pace lively.

Providing the funniest and liveliest scenes from the time she burst onto the stage after swimming a moat was 16-year-old Allie Bannigan as Princess Winifred, known as "Fred" to her friends. In her fourth CTA production, Allie proved she could belt out a song with gusto and dance with boundless energy while instinctively projecting a natural ease that brought added punch to her ad-lib remarks. Allie's delivery of "Shy" was easily the high point of the entire show.

Also near the top among outstanding performers would rank Justin Binnix as the Minstrel, who served as narrator through the show. He displayed strong acting and singing talents along with stylish communication skills — all hewn over his eight years with CTA. From his opening song, "Many Moons Ago," through "The Minstrel, The Jester, and I," on to the finale, Justin's Minstrel performance was always on target in this Severna Park High School senior's last CTA show.

Another SPHS senior in his last CTA show was Fred Fletcher-Jackson, who played the important Jester role, displaying strong dancing and acting talents plus a definite flair for comedy. Fred's "Very Soft Shoes" number was a highlight, along with all of his energetic dancing.

Other seniors in the cast included Jeff Miller, who delivered a consistently amusing performance as the Wizard, and David Ruth as Sir Studley.

Broadneck High School senior Hayley White met all the challenges inherent in the role of scheming, mean Queen Aggravain, sliding between annoyance and self-pity while delivering reams of dialogue and verbally destroying all potential brides of her beloved son.

Another performer enlivening the show was 16-year-old Sam Kobren, whose facial expressions spoke volumes as the good-hearted, cursed-into-silence King Sextimus, hapless husband of Queen Aggravain.

Other noteworthy performances were delivered by SPHS sophomore Austin Heemstra as a comically vain Sir Harry, Spalding High freshman Cassidy Hamilton convincingly sophisticated as Lady Larken, and 16-year-old Isaac Simonaire as a sweetly innocent Prince Dauntless.

Among the many outstanding dancers were Colleen Coleman, Mark Hollerbach, and Maddie Howard. A singer of major note was 14-year-old Isabella Kalendar, whose Nightingale mightily impressed.

On tap next for Children's Theatre will be "Night at the Wax Museum," featuring a cast of children ages 8-14 with performances to run weekends April 8 to 17. For more CTA information: childrenstheatreofannapolis.org.

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