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Unionville Theatre Company presents Once Upon A Mattress!

article and photos by Grant Weaver, 

(Feb. 17, 2013)  The Unionville Theatre Company has a treat in store for its fans when it presents Once Upon A Mattress, opening on Wednesday, February 20 at Flato Markham Theatre and running till Sunday, February 24.

          Bringing to the stage an ensemble of actors young and young at heart, Once Upon A Mattress will have you smiling, laughing, grooving in your seat ... and humming the tunes long after the show is over.  

          Based on the Hans Christian Andersen story The Princess and the Pea, this delightful musical was first performed in 1959 off-Broadway and has been reprised over the years, including, in recent times, two different productions featuring comedy legend Carol Burnett.

          Poor Prince Dauntless, son of the domineering and devious Queen Aggravain and the mute but lovable King Sextimus, must marry the girl of his mother’s choice.  Unfortunately, the Queen submits all the applicant ladies and princesses to a tricky test they are guaranteed to fail. And, to make matters worse for everyone, the Queen has ordained that no one in the kingdom may marry ahead of Prince Dauntless.

          Subplots, and comedy, and great music abound.

          The youth-oriented Unionville Theatre Company offers young people the opportunity to participate in a full-scale theatrical production.  Last year they performed the highly entertaining Fame, a show which had a serious side, addressing the challenges of youth and growing up.  This year’s production definitely tilts toward the light, fanciful and funny and will appeal to all ages.

          On Sunday, February 17, I dropped in on UTC’s afternoon rehearsal at Crosby Arena in Unionville.  The Sunday leading into show week is always a frenetic day.  The cast and orchestra go through their paces one last time at Crosby while, down at Flato Markham Theatre, the set assembly crew has already been hard at work since 9 a.m.  I’m looking forward to paying a visit there later in the day.

          On Monday evening, two days before opening night, the cast will rehearse for the first time on the actual stage and in front of the stunning castle set.

          UTC’s Once Upon A Mattress is directed by Florence Chan.  Florence is new to the company and has brought her own unique talents and background to the production. 

          A graduate in Fine Arts from York University where she majored in ballet and modern dance, Florence teaches children’s drama and dance programs with the Toronto District School Board, and is the dance specialist for the Board.

          She was delighted with UTC's selection of Once Upon A Mattress for its 2013 show.  

          “This is a very beautiful Broadway script, with original music that is so well written,” she told me.  “The music has such a variety of styles.”

          I had just watched the cast rehearse “Happily Ever After”.

          “That number is so jazzy and seductive, and funny,” she said.  

          “And then, there is ‘Swamps of Home’ that is so lyrical, so feminine, so elegant.  And then again, you’ve got ‘Song of Love’ that is so vibrant, and involves the whole cast.”

          This wide mixture of music provides a good balance.  There are songs to engage everyone in the audience.

          “And then we have the cast of different age groups,” she added, “from forty-six down to nine years old.”   

          Florence has been in ballet since she was a child, and studied at the Royal Academy of Dance in her native Hong Kong.  That dance background helped her to visualize how she wanted the set to look and the effects she wanted to create. 

          Her training in Chinese culture and dance also provided ideas for some dramatic elements.   The Wizard will hold and manipulate in one hand two silver balls.  Although, in Chinese culture, this is simply a hand exercise, on stage it can add to the characterization of the Wizard as crafty and tricky.

          A second element promises to be visually stunning.  A ribbon dance, performed while the minstrel is introducing the story, will produce the effect of shimmering fabric in the moonlight.

          “It will represent,” she said, “the dynamic in the quietness, brightness in the dark.”

          But Florence has also given lots of latitude to her choreographer Chris James.  Chris has been a frequent participant in UTC productions, including most recently performing in Beauty and the Beast in 2008, and has also done choreography for Markham Youth Theatre.  He recently toured with Judy and David’s All Together Now Entertainment, visiting schools all across Ontario.

          “I got to visit some places I didn’t even know existed, like Zurich, Ontario and Scotland, Ontario.”

          He has also been working behind the scenes on a Judy and David television show for CBC Kids.

          Chris has worked to enrich the dance element in this production of Once Upon A Mattress, a musical that was not, in its original version, a dance-intense show.

          The Unionville Theatre Company has been privileged for many years to have its own orchestra, conducted by Musical Director Doug Manning.  Its eighteen members are drawn in large part, but not entirely, from the Markham Concert Band, of which Doug is director. 

          The music of Once Upon A Mattress has been a treat for the orchestra to learn, and to perform for the cast. 

          “This is a great classical musical,” Doug told me, “with lots of toe-tapping music.  It’s going to be a lot of fun for the audience.”

          This is a busy time for Doug, with the full Markham Concert Band also in rehearsal for their March 3 concert “Stories and Legends” at Flato Markham Theatre.

          For Vocal Director David Bertram, a challenge was presented by the very humour contained in many of the song lyrics of Once Upon A Mattress. 

          “The comedy makes the songs difficult,” he explained, “because comedy is all about timing.  The kids are not just singing ballads, sad ballads and happy ballads, like a lot of shows have.  In these songs there are a lot of jokes built in.  It has a lot of late 1950’s and early 60’s humour that many in the cast, being young, have difficulty grasping: the subtleties, the innuendo.  It’s not in-your-face humour, like we have today.  So, we had to teach them all the timing aspects of the humour.”

             Needless to say, the hard work of the artistic team is much appreciated by the cast.

          Stefan Porfirio, who alternates with Gilad Gratch in the role of Prince Dauntless, has learned a lot. Stefan, who is 16 and attends St. Augustine Catholic High School, is in his first production with UTC, and his first time playing such a major part.

          “I love the production team.  They’ve been so helpful, and taught me a lot,” he said.

          He and Gilad are doing two very different interpretations of Dauntless. 

          “My Dauntless is a Mama’s boy,” he chuckles, recalling how, at auditions, the casting team asked him if he could do a whine. 

          “So I did a huge whine.”  He got the part.

          Liisa Kallasmaa-Davis is a veteran of UTC productions and is enjoying the role of Queen Aggravain. 

          “I love making people laugh, and, in this role, I get a very large chance to do that,” she beams.

          But it is also a challenging role, the Queen having more lines than any other character.  A bit like Hamlet, she is seldom offstage.

          Liisa alternates in the part with Catherine Zanon.  Catherine, a Grade 12 music student in Thornhill, is in her first UTC production.

          I asked her how she enjoyed playing the role of the “bad guy”. 

          She laughed.  “Playing the role of the mean one is fun!”

          The part of Winnifred is also alternated between two cast members, Paige Schuman and Caroline Watling.  On the shows when they are not performing as Winnifred, they play one of the Ladies.

          Paige clearly enjoys the physical comedy that she puts into her interpretation.

          “I’ve been dancing since I was two as a competitive dancer,” she told me.  So, in addition to the guidance she received from the choreographer, she was able to put some elements of her own improvisation into the role.  The role has given her also a chance to highlight her vocal and comedic talents.

          Caroline Watling played Mabel Washington in UTC’s Fame in 2012.  She has sung in choirs all her life and considers singing her strong suit.

          At the end of the afternoon rehearsal at Crosby Arena, the artistic team, and several of the cast, headed down to Flato Markham Theatre where the set building crew were hard at work, and to where the costumes had also been transported. 

          UTC is lucky to have an experienced Stage Manager like Rob Cline.  His calm demeanour, but quiet authority, are particularly crucial during this process of transition from the rehearsal venues to the real stage. 

          Simon Cantrill is once again the set designer.  With a story cast in a mythical medieval kingdom, a magnificent castle is the highlight of this year’s set.

          Simon explained that the central section of the castle was used five years ago in UTC’s Beauty and the Beast.  The set was sold to other productions but the company bought it back for this season and, after consulting with director Florence Chan and hearing her vision for the show, began an elaborate updating, remodeling, and enlarging, to bring it up to the requirements for Once Upon A Mattress. To the original centre section which the company had re-acquired, they have added turrets, and two curved walls which can be moved to allow the creation of a courtyard.

          For all the preparatory work on the set, the crew had the use of a building on the grounds of the Markham Fair where, on any given day, Simon had up to thirty volunteers sawing, drilling, building and painting.

          At the theatre, I encountered another familiar face, Carlene Flynn, who this year has taken on, for the first time, the task of costume co-ordinator.  Several cast members who had traveled down from Crosby were excitedly trying on their completed costumes. 

          The costume design itself was largely the conception of  Liisa Kallasmaa-Davis, a.k.a. Queen Aggravain, who provided Carlene with a complete series of drawings for all the characters.  From this costume plot, Carlene and the young and very talented Jessie Glionna teamed up to bring the drawings to reality. 

          It is complicated and detailed task.  With some roles alternated between two actors, and some actors playing more than one role, there are seventy costumes for forty-five cast members.

          Oh, and Carlene is also President of the board of directors of the Unionville Theatre Company.

          Also serving on the board, and co-Producer, is Solveig Barber.  Everyone who enjoyed UTC’s 2011 production of Cats will remember her splendid voice.  Solveig has also made several guest appearances as a soloist with the Markham Concert Band and will be doing so again later in the year. 

          Now she is learning the ropes on the production end, assisting co-Producer Adrian Chandran.  Also a member of the board, Adrian provided me with an overview of the whole process of mounting a show like Once Upon A Mattress.

          Last year, and again this season, Adrian told me, the company has reached out to the community, offering the experience of theatre to kids and families at risk.  UTC has put up a block of tickets for their Wednesday night show free of charge to Big Brothers of York Region.  This year, in addition to the six shows open to the general public, there will be two daytime weekday matinees offered to groups, including students and seniors. 

          Unionville Theatre Company is very appreciative of the sponsorships they have received.  Platinum sponsor is Mercedes-Benz Markham; Diamond sponsor is Village Grocer; Gold sponsors are Henry’s Photo Video Digital and Flato Developments Inc.; Silver sponsors are Headlines Salon & Spa, Markham Colours & Decor, and Schell Lumber. 

          The support of friends and family is, of course, a huge part of Unionville Theatre Company’s success.  Adrian’s own family is typical of the UTC experience, with Tara Chandran in the cast, her brother Connor helping with the set building, and her mother Sharon one of the Green Room co-ordinators.

          The loyalty of past members of the cast is also important.  Some of the young people who started as kids, working their way up to leading roles during their high school years, have moved on to university and cannot take on parts now.  But many come back for show week to contribute backstage in any way they can. 

          I had a wonderful conversation with cast members Tara Chandran, Sydney Keir and Laura Hernandez Merlano about growing up within the UTC family.

          Tara and Sydney have been in the company since they were small and have graduated from the chorus to main roles.

          “It’s weird,” said Sydney, “we’re in the older age group of the cast now!”

          Laura, in her third appearance with the company, is the newest of the trio.  But the experience has been so intense that she feels it has been longer than three years.

          “I feel that I know everyone so well.  Everyone has gotten so close, and it is like a family,” she said.  “You spend so much time together because it’s three times a week, and it’s long hours.  So, it really does become like your second family.”

          How do they cope with the butterflies?

          Sydney confessed to some extra nervousness this year.  In her role as the Minstrel, she will open the show, alone at centre stage. 

          “I’m a little scared, but I’m also looking forward to it,” she said.  “You just have to remember to base it on what you’ve been practising, and to remember your lines, and watch the conductor, and think about everything all at once ... and hope it goes well!!!”

          Oh my, that sounds nerve-wracking.  But the big grin tells me Sydney will be just great.

          For Laura, the closeness the cast members feel for each other is a source of strength amid the nerves.

          “They’re there, and they’re supportive of what you’re doing,” she said.  

          The butterflies just before stepping on stage is just something that never goes away, Tara said.

          “You never get nervous unless you actually care about something,” she added.

          Well, I think the success of the Unionville Theatre Company is that everybody cares, from the cast to the artistic team, to the parents and the many volunteers.

          And, after many months of hard work, the curtain is about to open on Unionville Theatre Company’s Once Upon A Mattress, a production that is sure to please and delight. 

For Show details, click here.

For more information on Unionville Theatre Company, click here.






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