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Once Upon a Mattress

If you go to see the revival of Once Upon a Mattress expecting a re-run of a Broadway classic, you're bound to be disappointed. The truth of the matter is that while this musical sendup of Hans Christian Anderson's fairy tale, "The Princess and the Pea" was indeed a big hit--460 performances, first off-Broadway and then on-Broadway--it was never a classic in the tradition of Broadway's greatest musicals (a la some of the musicals bearing the name of Mattress composer Mary Rodger's father Richard Rodgers) . It was a bright, fun show with bouncy tunes and catchy, lyrics. And it's still a bright, fun show. Composer Mary Rodgers' songs haven't lost their bounce, nor have Marshall Barer's lyrics their wit.

However, this Mattress is very different from the 1959 original, as well as the 1970 Carol Burnett television special. The emphasis then was not just on humor, but on over-the-top zaniness. It was a zaniness common to the Borscht Belt resorts which at one time nurtured many future stars of Broadway and television. In fact, at one of these resorts, Camp Tamiment in the Poconos, that Once Upon A Mattress" was created and produced. Carol Burnett's Princess Winnifred was indeed a one-of-a-kind star turn since she combined comedic talents similar to those of Zero Mostel, (the original star of A Funny Thing Happend On the Way to the Forum) with a Merman-esque voice. She was also a total unknown. While the the just opened revival directed by the Tony-Award Gerald Gutierrez tells the same story and sings most of the same songs, its humor is less exaggerated. The kingdom of his vision has humor, but lacks the clowning touch. It is the musical Hans Christian Anderson himself might have created from his story--costumes more gorgeous than garish; a Dauntless who is dauntingly handsome; and a sylph-like, princess-y Princess Winnifred played by a well known stage and screen actress, Sarah Jessica Parker. She is charming and likeable and capable of great wit and originality, as proved by her ingenious portrayal of a dog in Sylvia. But as her Princess Winnifred can't get comfortable on the twenty down mattresses, Parker can't seem to get herself comfortably settled into this part. Even if she developed more funny Shtik she'd still have the problem of lacking the necessary voice power. Unless memory fails us, some of her numbers seem to have been shortened and modified to better suit her style, but the role simply isn't the perfect vehicle for her talents. Too bad the economics of show business demanded a star instead of the chance to discover another terrific unknown comedienne with a powerhouse voice.

Except for the miscast princess, the rest of the supporting cast is first-class. The queen is a scene-stealing meanie (Mary Lou Rosato)and the King, Dauntless and the rest of her subjects are all in top form. Liza Gennaro's snappy choreography and the as-always knockout sets of John Lee Beatty and costumes by Jane Greenwood, provide this Once Upon a Mattress with many satisfactions. The "Man to Man Talk" number between King Sextimus (Heath Lamberts) and Dauntless (David Aaron Baker), still resonate with the audience. Another show-stopper is "Very Soft Shoes" by David Hibbard the Jester. Forbidden Broadway Srikes Back is sure to get its revenge for Hibbard's departure from the Triad's stage to become one of this show's major assets. (Come to think of it, Christine Pedi of that show would make a smashing Princess Winnifred. And if Gerard Alessandrini who created and directed that show ever decided to devote a whole evening to one show, it would be as close as we could come to the original Mattress. ( Our review of Forbidden Broadway Strikes Back ). Despite its shortcomings Once Upon a Mattress fills a gap on the current Broadway scene: A big but not behemoth musical suitable for the whole family. For sure, it offers a more genuine, less manipulative theater experience than, Beauty and the Beast. Unless you're too jaded to sit through any fairy tale, this one's also got a lot more adult appeal. Apropos of this, here's one little interchange we overheard from two women of a certain age, in ankle-length mink: "This is sooo child-ish!"..." to which her friend replied "So what did you expect from a fairy tale?"

Finally, to answer those of you who've asked whether tapes of the original Mattress are available anywhere...The Museum of Television & Radio (located in New York and Los Angeles) has a black and white tape of the 1959 televised version (complete with Lipton's tea commercials with a castle background and a knight drinking the advertised brew) and the 1970 special introduced by as well as starring Carol Burnett (and Bernadette Peters as the Lady Lark). We're only familiar with the New York Museum which is an amazing and architecturally splendid repository of our popular culture. . ( For The Museum of Television & Radio address, hours, programs.). ©right 1996, Elyse Sommer, CurtainUp.

Based on Anderesen's fairy tale
By Mary Rodgers/ Marshall Barer/Jay Thompson/Dean Fuller
Starring Sarah Jessica Parker
Directed by Gerald Gutierrez
Opening date 12/19/96/ closing 5/31/97 (187 performances, 33 previews)
With a final performance 6/01 at the Tony Awards telecast

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