Friday, February 2, 2024

Once Upon A Mattress - Sheer Perfection

Reviewed by Judd Hollander

Every once in a great while, all the elements in a theatrical production align perfectly. So it is with the Encores! Production of the 1959 musical comedy, Once Upon A Mattress. Based on the Hans Christian Anderson fairy tale The Princess and the Pea, the show - with music by Mary Rodgers, lyrics by Marshall Barer and book by Jay Thompson, Dean Fuller and Marshall Barer - can be seen at New York City Center through February 4.

The year is 1428 and there is great unhappiness among the people in a far-off mythical kingdom. For until Prince Dauntless (Michael Urie) takes a wife, no one in the realm is permitted to marry. Though there were many princesses from neighboring kingdoms who sought the Prince’s hand, everyone candidate so far has failed a test of character set by his mother, Queen Aggravain (Harriet Harris). 

(L-R) Harriet Harris, Michael Urie, Cheyenne Jackson and Nikki Renée Daniels in Encores! "Once Upon A Mattress." Photo: Joan Marcus.

The laws of the kingdom also state that once the Prince weds, he becomes King; therefore the current King and Queen must abdicate. But Queen Aggravain has no intention of ever ceding power. Her husband, King Sextimus the Silent (David Patrick Kelly) has nothing to say on the matter. This due to the fact he was struck mute years earlier as the result of a curse. Much of the backstory explained by the court's Jester (J. Harrison Ghee), who also serves as the narrator of the piece as he works to separate fact from fiction regarding unfolding events.

Harry (Cheyenne Jackson), a Chivalric Knight of the Realm, is determined to marry his true love, Lady Larken (Nikki Renée Daniels), and so sets off to find a suitable bride for the Prince. Harry and his Lady's efforts born of desperation when she learns she is going to have a baby. Fortunately, Harry is able to find an available princess. However it soon becomes apparent the woman in question, one Princess Winnifred (Sutton Foster), may not exactly be royalty material.

                         Sutton Foster in Encores! "Once Upon A Mattress."  Photo: Joan Marcus.

Princess Winnifred comes from a less-than-fashionable domain. One filled with marshes and swamps. Where the biggest thrill is watching mosquito larvae; and where items such as soap and houses with roofs are considered luxuries. Her first meeting with Queen Aggravain, Prince Dauntless and rest of the royal court - this after she swims the castle moat in her eagerness to meet the Prince - calls to mind the Beverly Hillbillies crashing a fancy ball in a Jane Austin novel. The Queen is horrified beyond words at Winnifred’s unkempt appearance and lack of proper etiquette. Prince Dauntless, one the other hand, is instantly smitten with her. An attraction the Princess quickly returns. 

Determined Winnifred will never marry her son, the Queen plans to place a tiny pea underneath 20 mattresses upon which the Princess will spend the night. If Winnifred does not feel the pea when she goes to sleep, she will be have failed the test and be sent on her way. Though determined as the Queen may be that the Princess fail, there are those just as determined she succeed. This leads to a continual battle of wits with the future happiness of the kingdom hanging in the balance.

                         Sutton Foster in Encores! "Once Upon A Mattress." Photo: Joan Marcus.

Once Upon A Mattress can best be described as a cheerful romp where everybody gets exactly what they deserve. Eventually. Also stressed is the need to stand up for whatever and whoever you believe in, regardless of the consequences for doing so. It also has a book extremely on the lightweight side. Thankfully, the production’s other creative elements make it all imminently watchable. Especially thanks to its winning cast.

From the moment she first appears, Foster completely nails the role of Princess Winnifred. The character equal part determination and homespun naiveté. Most importantly, Foster is able to bring forth the extensive physical comedy required for the part. From struggling to climb the castle wall to wrestling with the 20 mattresses as she tries to find a comfortable place to sleep.

(L-R) Michael Urie and Sutton Foster in Encores! "Once Upon A Mattress." Photo: Joan Marcus.

Urie is great fun as Prince Dauntless. A misfit who proves the old adage there is somebody perfect for everyone. A point made clear in his scenes with Winnifred. Dauntless is also the character who matures the most as he learns to step away from his mother’s control and become a man in his own right.

Harris wonderfully embodies Queen Aggravain, the comedic villain of the piece. A woman determined to keep a tight hold on her power by any means necessary; yet also the perfect straight woman for Foster ("you swam the moat?") and anyone else in her orbit. 

J. Harrison Ghee in Encores! "Once Upon A Mattress."  Photo: Joan Marcus.

Ghee is a real treat as the Jester. A person who basically owns the stage whenever seen on it. Striding rather than walking, with a "try to get in my face and see what happens" air, Ghee imbues the Jester with an attitude of loyalty to those who deserve it: an insider’s knowledge of exactly what is going on at all times: and an unassuming ability to make sure events turn out the way they are supposed to. This despite anyone's plans to the contrary. 

Daniels and Jackson work well as Lady Larken and Harry. Two people very much in love, though it's Larken who has more on the ball mentally. Harry a bit more befuddled, in a good-natured way and also perhaps a bit too obsessed with his title. Elsewhere, David Patrick Kelly does a nice turn as the silent King and plays off well against Ghee and Urine in their scenes together.

          (L-R) Harriet Harris and Francis Jue in Encores! "Once Upon A Mattress." Photo: Joan Marcus.

The direction by Lear Debessonet is excellent. Her efforts reveal a firm grasp of the material as she takes things almost but not quite over the top into parody. As well as reining in the cast just enough to make the characters and situations real enough to care about. Credit must also go to Lorin Latarro's enjoyable choreographic work and Andrea Hood's costumes. The latter of which add vibrant splashes of color to the proceedings.

The score is fun, if not particularly memorable. Highlights include Foster singing "Happily Ever After," a riff on other fairy tales heroines; and “Shy,” a comical ballet where she proves Winnifred is anything but. There’s also Ghee's delightful work in "Very Soft Shoes," a wistful number calling to mind the Jester's father. Also quite good is the comic love duet "Yesterday I Loved You," as sung by Larken and Jackson. A tune which has more than a few echoes of “You’re Awful” from the 1949 movie version of On The Town.

Michael Urie, Sutton Foster and the company of Encores! "Once Upon A Mattress." 
Photo: Joan Marcus.

Once Upon A Mattress offers fluff and merriment, with a batch of songs and a gentle morale or two. To its credit, the show doesn’t try to be anything more, and for this production, that is all that’s needed.

Featuring: Nikki Renée Daniels (Lady Larken), Sutton Foster (Princess Winnifred), J. Harrison Ghee (Jester), Harriet Harris (Queen Aggravain), Cheyenne Jackson (Sir Harry), Francis Jue (Wizard), David Patrick Kelly (King Sextimus the Silent), Michael Urie (Prince Dauntless)

Ensemble: Shavey Brown, Demarius R. Copes, Kaleigh Cronin, Cicily Daniels, Ben Davis, Ta’nika Gibson, Gaelen Gilliland, Jaquez, Andrea Jones-Sojola, Paul Kreppel, Amanda Lamotte, Abby Matsusaka, Adam Roberts, Ryan Worsing, Kristin Yancy, Richard Riaz Yoder

Once Upon A Mattress

Music by Mary Rodgers

Lyrics by Marshall Barer

Book by Jay Thompson, Dean Fuller & Marshall Barer 

Scenic Designer: David Zinn

Costume Designer: Andrea Hood

Lighting Designer: Amith Chandrashaker

Sound Designer: Kai Harada

Hair & Wig Designer: J. Jared Janas

Physical Comedy & Effects: Skyler Fox

Music Coordinator: Kimberlee Wertz

Production Stage Manager: Cody Renard Richard

Casting by The Telsey Office, Bernard Telsey, CSA, Craig Burns, CSA

Orchestrations by Hershy Kay, Arthur Beck & Carrol Huxley

Concert Adaptation by Amy Sherman-Palladino

Choreographer: Lorin Latarro

Featuring The Encores! Orchestra

Music Director: Mary-Mitchell Campbell

Director: Lear Debessonet


Presented by Encores! at City Center

131 West 55th Street

Tickets: 212-581-1212 or 

Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes, with one intermission

Closes February 4, 2024