With its PACE program and a tradition of performing arts excellence, Mamaroneck High School is an arts-centric school.
But for years, if a Mamaroneck kid wanted to be in a big-book musical, he or she had to look outside the school — to youth-theater programs like The Sandbox Theater — or wait until the last semester of their high-school career. For 20 years, the high-school musical has been a seniors-only affair.
That changes this week, with the opening of “Once Upon a Mattress,” the musical setting of “The Princess and the Pea” that made an overnight star of a young Carol Burnett.
Elyse Gellert, the school’s orchestra director, directs the musical.
“No one was sure how they felt about going back to it, because it had been so long and nobody remembered what it was like to do an all-school musical here,” Gellert told me. “But the minute we started rehearsing, everybody was like ‘This makes so much sense.’ It has felt like”
For years, directors and creative teams had been hired from the outside, but this production is home grown, run by the music department faculty.
“It’s great, because kids learn what it’s like to work in a company.”
A big company. There are 65 in the cast and 23 in the all-student pit, under director Tim Hooker.
Choreographer Alison Parsley has enlisted kids from the step team and tap team for big dance numbers.
“We call them the Knights in Tights,” Gellert said with a laugh.
“We’re hoping to build a tradition here, setting a standard for ourselves.”
That starts with a preview at the middle school weeks before opening night.
And Gellert has invited the middle-schoolers who just staged “Shrek” to be the audience for the final dress rehearsal.
The costumes were all made or salvaged, not rented.
The decision was made at the end of last school year. After a meeting with the music department and the PACE teachers, the collaboration was born.
“We kind of forgot why we were doing the senior musical,” Gellert says. “Yes, it was a great experience, but then we lose those kids. Think of three years wasted, when we could have been having so much fun.”
Principal Elizabeth Clain, who makes a cameo appearance with other faculty, was on board from the start.
“She helped us announce this in September and lead this push,” Gellert says. “And she has a daughter who’s a senior.”
After running it by her daughter — how would her classmates feel about losing their seniors-only musical? — Clain told Gellert she couldn’t think of a reason not to do it: Other schools did all-school shows, the faculty had all been at schools that had all-school shows, it was time for Mamaroneck to restore its all-school show.
Bianca Barragan plays Winnifred, the unlikely princess who swims the moat in search of her prince.
She says the news that the Class of 2015 wouldn’t have its own musical was a bit of a bummer, she said. Some of her classmates, who hadn’t been in shows but who planned to be in the senior show, opted out of trying out for “Mattress.”
Barragan couldn’t stay away.
She has been active in theater outside of school in Westchester Sandbox Theater productions of “Footloose,” “The Mystery of Edwin Drood,” “Young Frankenstein” and “Little Women.”
“I’ve been doing theater since the third grade and it has always been a collaboration between age groups, never just one age. So I was excited to be able to do that, with a show like this that I’d never heard of before.
Barragan plays the violin and is in the Original Science Research elective.
Her “Analysis of Quasar Color as a Function of Red Shift” won second place in a recent science contest. It looks at the variation of light emitted by celestial bodies.
This is one smart princess.
“She’s really similar to me, as a human being. The song ‘Shy’ describes my life. I think I’m shy but I’m not, really. It’s so comfortable playing her.”
Musical theater, Barragan says, has been home.
“I’m not exactly good at sports. Musical theater has been that one extracurricular activity that I could go to and know that I could work with people who were talented and wanted to be there.”
Junior Ben Morris, 16, might have had to wait another year to play a character like Dauntless the Drab, the prince Winnifred seeks.
“It was a shock when I heard about the all-school show, but it was going to be a really cool experience. It was an opportunity to be in a musical again. I jumped at the opportunity and I’m so glad I did.”
Senior Jack Belisle, 18, says he knows some of his classmates opted out of the show, but he auditioned and landed the role of Sir Harry.
“I’m just rolling with it,” he said.
Sophomore Kevin Shen, 15, is playing keyboards in his first musical.
“The music is very different from what I’m used to,” he said. “And learning to accompany people is hard. You have to watch them and still play along. Not easy.”
But this week, in McLain Auditorium, the whole school will turn out to see a soggy princess, an evil queen, a pile of mattresses, and four classes of kids putting on a show.
“Once Upon a Mattress,” Mamaroneck High School, 7:30 p.m., Feb. 26, 27, 28. $12, $8 students. 914-220-3140 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Here’s the Running Lines video I shot at Mamaroneck. Enjoy!