Sunday, July 08, 2012

Once Upon A Mattress

Farcical ONCE UPON A MATTRESS at Mercury Summer Stock

What do Carol Burnett, Jack Gilford, Dody Goodman, Imogene Coca, Buster Keaton, Sarah Jessica Parker, Jane Krakowski, Bernadette Peters, Wally Cox, and Elliot Gould all have in common? They all have been in professional productions of ONCE UPON A MATTRESS.

ONCE UPON A MATTRESS is a musical farce based on the Hans Christian Anderson short story, THE PRINCESS AND THE PEA. It opened off-Broadway in 1959, and despite mixed reviews moved onto Broadway later that year. Much to the surprise of many, it was nominated for Best Musical, but to the surprise of none, Burnett, in her Broadway debut, was nominated for Best Leading Actress.

It went on to become a television special in 1964, again in 1972 and 2005, all of which starred Burnett. There was a Broadway revival in 1996. It’s now on stage at Mercury SummerStock.

The fairy tale takes place in a fictional kingdom ruled by the overbearing, control freak, Queen Aggravain, and her mute husband, King Sextimus the Silent. The king can’t speak because of a curse placed on him. Prince Dauntless the Drab, their son, is in search of a wife. The Queen doesn’t want to lose her nebbish off-spring, so she devises all sorts of tests to insure that none of the possible princesses who are recruited for the role passes, and wins Dauntless’s hand in marriage.

When Princess Winnifred swims the palace moat to get into the competition, Aggravain meets her match. The free-spirited Winnifred wins the heart of the prince and his court, and with the help of the Minstrel, Jester and the King, passes the royal test. Of course, the King gets his voice back, Winnifred and Dauntless get togetherness, and everyone, except the evil Queen, lives happily ever. (Come on now, this is a fairy tale.)

ONCE UPON A MATTRESS is a musical farce. Of all types of theatre, farce is undoubtedly the hardest to perform. It takes perfect timing, the right control over exaggeration, and outlandish believability. Think Lucille Ball, Tim Conway and Harvey Korman.

The Mercury cast, under the direction of Pierre-Jacques Brault, gets a lot of the farce correct thanks to some good portrayals by dynamic, uninhibitted Kelvette Beacham as Princess Winnifred, Dan DiCello as Prince Dauntless, and Brault, who cross-dresses as Queen Aggravain. Eddie Carney, the musical director/pianist, gets laughs as the silent, but, “dirty-old-man” King Sextimus.

Brian Marshall sings, winks, and smiles his way through the role of the Minstrel, adding ad libs about John Travolta, the Kardashians, Bambi, acid reflux and the unzipped fly of his pants. He even throws in an audience pleasing negative aside about the reviewer whose article you are now reading. (The fact that the script can be tampered with shows the lack of depth of the storyline development. Believe me, this is not a great epic, but it is fun.)

Highlight numbers include Shy, Song Of Love and Man To Man Talk.

Brault adds visual elements including puppets, takes on the LION KING, and costuming that relates to many other fairy tales, including dressing the ladies and gentlemen of the court in identifiable character garb. Kaitlyn Dessoffy is adorable as Tinkerbelle, Aubrey Fink makes for a fine Belle (from BEAUTY AND THE BEAST) and Anne Bakan is a vision of Snow White. Tasha Brandt (Jester) sings well, as does Brittany Lynne Eckstrom (Lady Larkin).

On the other hand, some of the cast just isn’t up to the acting level needed to pull off farce, overdoing their affectations or totally missing the creation of a character.

Jonathan Anderson’s costume designs are excellent. The set, consisting of suspended gold picture frames works well. The piano accompaniment by Eddie Carney is well played, but gets lost in the large auditorium.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: If your purpose for going to the theatre, as the program suggests, is to” escape, laugh and let your imagination soar,” then you’ll enjoy ONCE UPON A MATTRESS. It’s filled with much cleverness, laughs and visual pleasure, but misses out on more due to some misguided performances.