The light-hearted musical Once Upon a Mattress (1959) made Carol Burnett a star and kick-started her incredible career. For some reason it has never quite attained an honored place in the hierarchy of musical theater history.
Several revivals, including those starring Burnett, Sarah Jessica Parker and even a TV production featuring Tracey Ullman have kept the show alive. It has always been a star-driven vehicle, but New York City Center Encores! has produced a sparkling revival that has leveled the playing field a bit, casting the musical with stars, Tony and Emmy winners, an ensemble that gives heft to this one-joke show.
The show was written by Mary Rodgers, daughter of Richard Rodgers and mother of Adam Guettel (music), Marshall Barer (lyrics and book), Jay Thompson (book) and Dean Fuller (book) and has been neatly adapted by Amy Sherman-Palladino (Roseanne, Gilmore Girls and The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel plus the short-lived TV series Bunheads which starred Sutton Foster who, not so coincidentally, stars in Once Upon a Mattress).
Mattress takes its inspiration from the Hans Christian Andersen fairytale, The Princess and the Pea in which a candidate for a royal marriage is tested for her royal sensitivity by placing a single pea under a pile of mattresses. If she feels the pea and fails to fall asleep, she is, indeed a princess.
Of course, in true American musical theater form the elegant Princess has been transformed into the bedraggled and uncouth Winnifred (Foster, in her best goofy guise, proving her talent knows no boundaries). Winnie answers the call to audition to be the bride of the equally goofy Prince Dauntless (Michael Urie, funny, but hampered by his material’s lack of sophistication while taking a busman’s holiday after recently departing from Spamalot).
The marvelously imperious Harriet Harris plays Dauntless’ mother, Queen Aggravain married to the mute, but highly communicative King Sextimus the Silent (David Patrick Kelly, adorable).
After Aggravain pooh-poohs dozens of local princesses, Princess Winnifred appears over the castle’s battlements, fresh from a swim across the moat, looking like a bedraggled frog singing of her moist homeland (“The Swamps of Home”). Dauntless immediately falls for this strange creature, much to the exasperation of the Queen who wants to keep her powerful hold on her fictional country. She devises the pea-under-the-twenty-mattresses scheme, of course singing a ditty about it, “Sensitivity.”
Another lovey-dovey couple, beautiful Lady Larken (Nikki Renée Daniels, gorgeous voice) and the slightly dim, but handsome Sir Harry (Cheyenne Jackson), fill out the slim, but amusing plot with their misadventures and lovely duets including the wistful “In a Little While” and the romantic “Yesterday I Loved You.”
Narrating the entire silly, but loveable, affair is the Jester played by an amiable and nimble J. Harrison Ghee, late of his Tony winning performance in Some Like it Hot.
The Encores! production is top drawer as usual with Mary-Mitchell Campbell leading the the Encores! Orchestra in a first class rendition of this charming, but second-tier score sung with enthusiasm by the cast which also included Francis Jue as the Wizard who does Aggravain’s bidding.
Lorin Latarro’s choreography is totally at one with the jolly mood of Mattress, putting the ensemble through its paces in the “Spanish Panic” and nearly killing poor Foster in her hyperactive tour de force number, “Song of Love.”
Though Andrea Hood’s faux medieval fairytale costumes do no favors for the figures of the leads, they are colorful and witty as is set designer David Zinn’s clever banners and his very funny tiny model castle. All this is lit vividly by Amith Chandrashaker.
Director Lear deBessonet maybe allowed too much pratfall humor—which the audience loved—but keeps the show glowing for all it’s worth.
Once Upon a Mattress is a fine, well-constructed entertainment staged with panache and humor.
Once Upon a Mattress (through February 11, 2024)
New York City Center Encores!
New York City Center, 131 West 55th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-581-1212 or visit http://www.NYCityCenter.org
Running time: two hours and 15 minutes including one intermission