By Tina Arth and Darrell Baker
Truth in advertising: we had a tough time imagining how Once Upon a Mattress would play in the relatively small space available at
HART Theatre. Immediately after the lights went up at Friday’s opening
performance, we relaxed – it became clear that the intimacy of the venue is an
asset, not a liability, at least in the hands of this production’s director,
cast, and production crew. Hillsboro
Mattress purports to tell the real story of the beloved children’s classic, The Princess and the Pea. The team of Jay Thompson and Dean Fuller (book), Marshall Barer (lyrics), and Mary Rodgers (music) created an adult fairy tale that has brought laughter to audiences for over 50 years – ever since funny lady Carol Burnett made her Broadway debut in the role of Princess Winnifred. In this version, the aptly named Queen Aggravain has decreed that no one in the kingdom may marry before her son, the much-daunted Prince Dauntless, weds an approved princess. For reasons best left unexplored, no woman is good enough for the Queen, who devises impossible tests for each would-be royal bride. The story opens with the rejection of applicant #12, the Prince’s apparent last hope. The unplanned pregnancy of Lady Larken inspires baby daddy Sir Harry to rove far afield in search of another candidate. After combing the northern swamps, he returns with Winnifred the Woebegone (“Fred”) a moat-swimming bog princess and unlikely heroine who captures the hearts of all except, of course, her potential mother-in-law.
Wendy Bax plays the part of Queen Aggravain as though she had been, as Groucho Marx once said, “vaccinated with a phonograph needle.” Her aggressively strident performance captures the spirit of the conniving über-momma to perfection. Her husband, the accursed King Sextimus the Silent, is skillfully portrayed by local theater veteran Tony Smith, a character actor so good at playing “befuddled” that we sometimes wonder how he finds his way home from the theater.
Ky Fifer (Sir Harry) handles the transition from arrogant sexist to sensitive lover with aplomb, and his superb delivery of “Yesterday I Loved You” adds a touching romantic interlude to the show’s comedic tone. Kristin Barrett (Lady Larken) brings vulnerability, crystal diction, and a fine singing voice to the role. She has great timing and a mobile face that bring comic relief to the pathos of her predicament.
In a show filled with strong vocal performances, Jake Beaver (the Jester) and Brandon Weaver (the Minstrel) stand out. Their solo and duet numbers provide some of the finest musical moments, and Weaver’s formal enunciation creates a medieval atmosphere. In “Very Soft Shoes,” a tribute to the Jester’s father, Beaver display surprising coordination and grace twirling a magic wand.
Tyler Gould gives Prince Dauntless’ wide-eyed innocence and curiosity a restraint that really works in the small theater, where subtle facial expressions can speak volumes, and his strong vocals make “Song of Love” a delight. His shy but eager demeanor is a perfect counterpoint to Fred’s bold physicality. Finally, there’s Erin Zelazney (Fred). From the opening notes of “Shy” we knew that we, like Dauntless, were in love. She is a brassy belter with a solid voice, yet she conveys a plaintive insecurity that makes “Happily Ever After” a show-stopper (with the aid of those marvelous puppets).
In an act of close-up magic, Director Peter Stein and Music Director Alice Dalrymple succeed in putting a large-scale musical, including complex vocal harmonies and broad physical comedy, virtually into the laps of a very appreciative audience.