The musical “Once Upon a Mattress” is made for summer, all froth and frolic, with few intellectual demands. The show reshapes Hans Christian Andersen’s fairytale “The Princess and the Pea.” The music is by Mary Rodgers, daughter of Richard Rodgers. A talented cast harvests hilarity from the two-dimensional characters who populate the show. Andrew Chown directs the Princeton Festival production. An imaginative design team faces up to turning the thin story into vivid entertainment. “Adorable” was a word repeatedly heard at intermission.
“Once Upon a Mattress” is a venerable show. It began with a long Broadway run in 1959 and had a Broadway revival in 1996. Its history includes three television incarnations.
In an unspecified medieval kingdom a search is underway to find a bride for Prince Dauntless (Charlie Duncan.) No one else in the kingdom is permitted to wed until the Prince marries. His mother, Queen Agrivain (Evangelia Kingsley) thwarts the candidacy of all the potential brides. Dauntless’ father, the mute King Sextimus (Patrick James), plays no meaningful role in the selection process. Sir Harry (Mark Edmundson) and his beloved, Lady Larken, (Morgan Rae Griffith) are eager to marry soon because Larken is pregnant. Spurred on by the time pressure, Harry tracks down Princess Winnifred (Stephanie Sine) and brings her to the court to contend as a spouse for Dauntless.
Queen Agrivain designs several tests to guarantee Winnifred’s failure as a candidate, but Winnifred succeeds in all of them. The final test is Winnifred’s sensitivity to a pea lodged at the bottom of 20 mattresses where she will sleep. Disturbed by the pea, Winnifred remains awake and qualifies as the bride of Dauntless. Bride found, the spell that made King Sextimus silent is undone; he speaks again and Queen Agrivain falls speechless.
The Matthews Acting Studio at 185 Nassau Street, has been configured for this show to seat fewer than 90 spectators to accommodate a rather large cast requiring grandiose surroundings. The set by Nathalie Schlosser makes the most of the limited space. Tall, un-anchored columns are moved to create differing environments. A sturdy stone parapet verges on an adjoining moat. Both levels of the stage are utilized.
The band consisting of piano (Jack Bender), double bass (John Grillo), and drums (Kenneth Riehman) is located opposite the stage, above the audience. The musicians’ mastery of tempo and their sensitivity to volume contribute to a brisk and balanced performance. Bender is the music director.
Costume/hair designer Marie Miller provides generic costumes that parody medieval dress. Women wear long gowns with elaborate sleeves. Their headdresses are complicated. Queen Aggrivain’s yard-wide crown with its fluttering red chiffon lower section is so broad that she must turn sideways to make her way through an ordinary door. Men wear tights and complex upper garments that have not been seen for centuries.
Choreographer Stacey Jackson provides spritely movement, as well as arranging for minor characters to move in a phalanx and stress the “yes-man” mood of the court.
Stephanie Sine’s energetic portrayal of Winnifred as a cheerfully competent overachiever furnishes repeated high points in the show. She arrives at the castle wet, having swum the moat. Uninhibited and unaware of her innocent brashness, she is a refreshing player. Her ineradicable energy infects the audience and elicits enthusiastic reactions.
The domineering Queen Aggrivain (Evangelia Kingsley) expresses her all-absorbing domination of her son with sour facial expressions and stormy rages. Prince Dauntless (Charlie Duncan) is consistently dim and dutiful.
Patrick James’ mute King Sextimus communicates eloquently in pantomime. A particularly successful ensemble calls for his participation, along with the Jester (Tyler Brunsman) and the Minstrel (John Charles McLaughlin), in a number where the trio declares that they have only two voices among them. Their timing is impeccable and speech is not necessary for James to make his presence felt.
An insert in the program credits McLaughlin as the Minstrel. He joined the cast nine days into rehearsal for “Mattress,” 10 days before opening night. His arrival came one day after the programs went to the printer.
In fact, McLaughlin was the third person in the Minstrel role. “It took me two days to find a replacement,” Artistic Director Richard Tang Yuk said. “I spent two sleepless nights.” We had to find someone who could start immediately, and there were a lot of scheduling issues. Costumes were a problem since McLaughlin’s predecessor had already been measured for them.”
McLaughlin recalls the kindness of the cast in easing him into a responsible role. Acting solo as a master of ceremonies, he authoritatively introduced the show. His participation in the ensemble was smooth and seamless.
“Once Upon a Mattress,” Princeton Festival, Matthews Acting Studio at 185 Nassau Street. Friday through Sunday, June 22 through 24, and Thursday through Saturday, June 28 to 30. Sunday shows at 3 p.m.; other days at 8 p.m. $45. www.princetonfestival.org or 609-258-2787.