“Once Upon a Mattress” is an unusual spin on the classic Broadway musical, what with its fairy tale setting and its heroine, the princess who sleeps on a pea, who isn’t exactly a demure ingénue (famously played by Carol Burnett off-Broadway, on Broadway and in the first TV movie.)
Although the show hit Broadway in 1959 with a somewhat wacky medieval look – long, sweeping gowns with pointy sleeves, twisty hats, boys in tights, that kind of thing – director Scott Susong chose to go a different way for his production at Illinois Wesleyan’s MacPherson Theatre. That means we get a beautiful, high-fashion 50s look, with dresses and hats you might expect to see on Suzy Parker in the pages of Vogue in 1955. Or on Betty Draper in the early season of “Mad Men.”
At first, all the gorgeous dresses, all the dishy suits and tuxedos, are in shades of black and white. It takes our plucky heroine, Princess Winnifred (called Fred for short), to disturb that palette. Fred pops up in a green-and-orange bathing suit with her bright red Lucy curls escaping from a swim cap, definitely breaking up the monotony at the castle.
Answering a call for possible brides for Prince Dauntless, Fred swims the moat outside his castle to make her case. Although no one in the kingdom can marry until Dauntless is safely hitched, his cranky mother, Queen Aggrivain, has been keeping matrimony out of reach, forcing potential brides to survive whatever impossible tests she dreams up. For Fred’s test, Queen Aggrivain decides to make her sleep on ten mattresses with one tiny pea tucked under the bottom one. If she sleeps through the night (and the queen tosses in lots of energetic dancing beforehand, a sleeping draught, incense and a serenade from a nightingale to make sure she does), Fred will flunk the “sensitivity” test a real princess would pass. But if that tiny pea keeps her awake, then Fred can marry Dauntless, everybody else in the kingdom can marry, too, and we may just get our Happily Ever After ending.
Along with Fred, Dauntless and his battle ax of a mother, there’s a silent king who keeps chasing the chambermaids, studly Sir Harry and his pregnant girlfriend, Lady Larken, a jester and a minstrel, and a puffed-up factotum who used to be a magician.
Susong does a very good job keeping the right 50s feel, aided by Nicholas Bursoni’s nifty costumes and Andrea Healy’s pretty castle courtyard set. The adorable black-and-white video piece that opens the story and the use of the original orchestrations from Hershey Kay and Arthur Beck also keep the proper mood going, as do the inclusion of all the specialty numbers, like the jester’s dance with the ghost of his father and even a little magic from Merton the Major Domo. It’s to Susong’s and his cast’s credit that all of that works, and works well.
Everybody in the company is up to the challenge, with especially good work from the bouncy, bright Erika Lecaj as Princess Fred; Andrew Temkin, who offers a sweet, charming presence as Dauntless; Melina Rey, not afraid to go big as the pushy queen; Josh Levinson adding panache as the miming king; Vince Gargaro, whose gorgeous voice makes the minstrel more than just a walk-on; dapper dancing Nicholas Reinhart as the jester; Blake Brauer, another fine dancer as the soft shoe ghost; and Caitlin Borek, who is quite beautiful as the Nightingale of Samarkand.
Lecaj’s “Shy” and “Happily Ever After” are highlights, as are Gargaro’s “Many Moons Ago” and the “Spanish Panic” dance stylings of Ian Coulter-Buford and Abigail Root.
With terrific performances and sharp production values, this “Once Upon a Mattress” shows once again that Illinois Wesleyan’s School of Theatre Arts knows exactly what to do when it comes to musicals.
Once Upon a Mattress
Music by Mary Rodgers, Lyrics by Marshall Barer and Book by Jay Thompson, Dean Fuller and Marshall Barer
Based on the Hans Christian Anderson fairytale "The Princess and the Pea"
IWU McPherson Theatre
Director: Scott Susong
Musical Director: Saundra DeAthos-Meers
Choreographer: Jessica Riss
Scenic Designer: Andrea Healy
Costume Designer: Nicholas Bursoni
Lighting Designer: Shawn Mallot
Sound Designer: Kirsten Andersen
Video Designer: Jeff Feasley
Orchestrations by Hershey Kay & Arthur Beck
Cast: Vince Gargaro, Chase Miller, Kristen Evensen, Laura Martino, Julie Tucker, Abigail Root, Laura Williams, Melina Rey, Josh Levinson, Andrew Temkin, Nicholas Reinhart, Blake Braurer, Zach Mahler, Peter J. Studlo, Erikia Lecaj, Ian Coulter-Buford, Isaac Sherman, Caitlin Borek, Angela Jos, Lizzie Rainville, Patsita Jiratipayabood, Amy Stockhaus, Annie Simpson, Roz Prickel.
Running time: 2:20, including one 15-minute intermission
Remaining performances: November 18-20 at 8 pm and November 20-21 at 2 pm.