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‘Once Upon a Mattress’ Springs to Life

On the surface, an alternative high school like has no business taking on a musical like Once Upon a Mattress, a show one year from qualifying for theatrical Social Security—it premiered on Broadway in 1959, making it 64 years old. But thankfully the director, Hannah Shenberger, and her marvelous cast and crew showed chutzpah in staging this retro play. As she pointed out in the program notes, “It is a show that celebrates individuality and applauds using your voice,” something for which the school has long been known.

The story of Once Upon a Mattress is familiar and simple. It’s Hans Christian Anderson’s The Princess and the Pea and it goes like this: In order for the girl to get the guy, the guy must find a girl for another guy whose mom is the worst in-law in all of literature. The lead lovers are excellent. Samuel Yonas plays Sir Harry opposite Aya Rokeach’s Lady Larken, and their moments on stage are terrific. When they sing “In a Little While,” you can’t help but grin and marvel at their voices and chemistry. Matching them in charm and talent are Luke Walker as Prince Dauntless and the genuine star of the show, Jackie Campion, as Winnifred. They are wonderful together and she is exceptional. There is something about theatrical charisma that transcends power of voice or acting acumen—it’s about confidence and sparkle to where even a smile is felt in the back row of the house.

Other actors do really great work in large and small doses. Khalil Carim beautifully begins the show as the minstrel, and we are immediately drawn to him and this story. Sam Burton and Sophia Ly dance together wonderfully and Adriana Argyriou serenades as the nightingale with a voice as lovely as her shiny shawl. Barley Lewis-McCabe channels Harpo Marx playing the king with comical gestures and curly locks, and Emilia Arneson shows physical and vocal poise as the jester. Her level of concentration and character warmth makes her the anchor of every scene she’s in. Now as for that mean mom, the Queen, manifested by Asij Kurtovic, special praise is warranted. It’s probably not a coincidence that she wears upon her head those iconic medieval cones that somewhat resemble Satan’s famous horns, for Her Majesty is loud and bossy and sassy. And not very nice. And a bully. And Asij, great job for all that!

Supporting Director Shenberger in making this show work so well are choreographer Kelly Flynt and costumer Amy Dunn. When the full ensemble takes the stage—sometimes not quite fitting in the smaller space at the Academy of Alameda—just standing still they look really good. Colorful dresses and fancy tunics were framed and backed by the adorable castle. And when they moved, well, the story soared. Solos and duets are the celebrated gems of musical theater, but when the whole crew poses in power, combining their voices and moving in careful coordination, the effect is thrilling. The kids I saw last night are now forever cousins to those waving the flag in “Do You Hear the People Sing” from Les Miserables.

A show this good, showing this much effort and talent and joy, deserved more than a single weekend. Well done, ACLC thespians! And nice job, Cole Walker, robot chicken wrangler!