OREM — At the end of Once Upon a Mattress (produced by SCERA), I certainly walked away with a memorable experience. The characters are larger than life and the action leaps off the stage. Literally. The entire production is a fun-loving romp into the magical and ridiculous.
The story begins with a Minstrel explaining how history has the story of the Princess and the Pea all wrong. The rest of the cast then proceeds to show the audience the true events surrounding Prince Dauntless and his endless search for a suitable princess to wed. The audience is entertained by the overbearing Queen’s mothering (or smothering) of her son Dauntless and the arrival of the unlikely Princess Winnifred, or “Fred” as her friends call her.
Princess Winnifred (Anne Gordon) is immediately charming and believable as the awkward yet lovable princess from the swamp and steals the show as soon as she arrives at the castle. She sings at the top of her lungs about being shy and had me in her pocket from that point on. Prince Dauntless (Matthew Wade Johnson) is perfectly bumbling and naïve when the show starts, the picture of a Mama’s boy. By the end, he has learned to spread his wings and I cheered him along his journey of growth. Diane Dabczynski as Queen Aggravain certainly knows how to play the controlling, pompous, commanding and demanding Queen to a “t.” Her lecturing of her family and her subjects throughout the production produces greatest sympathy for those in her wrath, especially her husband, King Sextimus (Jerry Ellison). The King is a mute and a lecherous old man who still manages to be lovable through his miming, even while chasing young servant girls around the stage.
The story is, of course, about a Princess sleeping on a Pea in order to prove worthy of the Prince. However, the real focus of this musical is the growth of all the characters as they fight for what they want. Lady Larken (Elizabeth Bean) and Sir Harry (Spencer Bean) are also doomed to remain apart unless Princess Winnifred can pass the test of the Pea. Their love story is just as important as the Prince and Princess’s. Larken and Harry are a couple whose love is young and passionate, but also a little naïve. Their relationship is at once over-dramatic and endearing and I couldn’t help but root for them and also laugh at them a little.
The production itself (directed by Robinne Booth) is extremely over-exaggerated. The cast relies heavily on physical comedy, throwing themselves around the stage and falling over each other. The songs are fun and loud and the choreography (Sunny Watts) reflects that. It does get hectic and a little dizzying to watch at parts. Songs sung by the entire cast are hard to understand at times because so much is going on and everyone is so out of breath. Still, the frantic pace can be exhilarating to watch, especially during the Spanish Panic number, which is basically a dance party on stage. The first act comes to a chaotic close with cast members rushing out into the audience, leaping offstage, and singing a climax that left me a little out of breath myself. The second act slows down a bit, almost too much, with a number by the Jester (Rick Rea) that was beautifully sung but a little random and out of place in the story. There is also a long lull while the Princess tries to fall asleep to a Nightingale’s (Sabrina Bodine) singing/screeching. However, Anne Gordon’s antics while tossing and turning are very amusing and she is not afraid of looking ridiculous for the sake of comedy.
The set and lighting (Sarah Hainsworth and Brandon Moss, respectively) are mostly static, yet serve their purpose. The costumes (Debbie Bowman), however, are beautifully done and become part of the story. Each courtier is part of couple longing for the Prince to be married so they can also marry, and their costumes clearly pair them off. Prince Dauntless’s costumes change from a short little-boy skirt to a man’s (medieval) suit as he grows as a character. The Queen’s headdresses are large and flashy, perfectly matching her opinion of herself. Princess Winifred’s dresses are atypical of the rest of the courtiers, but match her boisterous and unselfconscious attitude.
Once Upon a Mattress is light-hearted and amusing, if a little overwhelming at times. It is certainly enjoyable to watch, although I didn’t envy the parents who will have to explain some of the innuendos (including an entire number about the birds and the bees) to their children on the drive home. Still, the show will leave you smiling when the curtain closes and maybe with a little more respect for that Princess and her pea.