New Era Dinner Theatre’s Once Upon a Mattress is flat-out delightful. It’s not the perfect production, but it’s so amusing and well-sung that I left Saturday night’s show with a giddy feeling that's sticking with me even as I write this review a day later.
Director Bill Turner plays up the play’s playfulness, highlighting the goofy humor in this re-telling of Hans Christian Andersen’s fairytale The Princess & the Pea, here told through music by Mary Rodgers, lyrics by Marshall Barer, and a book by Barer, Jay Thompson, and Dean Fuller. In this version of the story, no one in the kingdom is allowed to get married until their prince finds a bride. The queen, however, is set on preventing her son’s marriage by creating unpassable tests to prove a princess’ royal worthiness, the ultimate of which is the pea placed under 20 mattresses.
Turner’s failing, it appears, lies in not giving his actors enough, specifically, to do. (The same could be said for Emily Shield, whose choreography, though charming, is often minimalist and repetitive.) Most of the scenes are rendered awkward as the actors mill about – walking just to walk, rather than for having a reason to move – and move their arms in a stilted manner. Turner has obviously set his actors in specific places, but doesn’t seem to have helped them shape their motivations for moving from one place to another, or better portray their characters physically.
These, however, are a minor shortcomings, as the overall production is just so much fun. Populated with comical caricatures and silly scenarios, Once Upon a Mattress is one of those shows that begs to be produced in an overly-exaggerated way, and at this, Turner excels, getting his players to play it big and neglect any subtlety.
There’s something positive to be said about each actor in the sizable cast, including the members of the chorus, but not enough words to say it. Together, the ensemble is most notable for its beautifully blended voices; the choral numbers, the duets, and the trios are well-sung, with pleasing harmonies. Several of the solos suffer from pitch problems, but in general, the tonal quality is consistently impressive.
Standing out from the crowd is Kelsea Leacox as the tomboyish Princess Winnifred, the princess who sleeps on the pea. Leacox is exceptional at physically portraying her role’s humor, specifically with her face, as she employs overemphasized looks, eye rolls, smiles, and expressions to great effect. Courtney Gevaert almost upstages Leacox with similar physical embellishments; as Lady Larken, the pregnant lady-in-waiting hoping to marry soon in order to hide her extramarital indiscretion, Gevaert exudes a giddiness that’s both hilarious and endearing. (Admittedly, a few fits of on-stage giggles, on Saturday, threatened to derail her performance.) Jonathan Ryan also effectively overdoes it as Prince Dauntless, the prince who must marry before the rest of the kingdom can. Ryan maintains a delightful grin and wide eyes throughout his performance, portraying his mama’s-boy prince with amusing dweebishness.
Allison SyWassink, though, is a bit of a conundrum, as she’s the one actor in the show who performs with impressive nuance, yet neglects the called-for exaggeration – she’s good as Queen Aggravain, no question, but could play her role a bit bigger. This is most recognizable in her solo number, “Sensitivity.” Through the song, the queen is testifying to her own sensitive nature, while it's clear that she's a callous, uppity woman without so much as a drop of sensitivity in her. SyWassink sings the song beautifully, with excellent vocal control, perfect pitch, and exquisite sound. Unfortunately, it’s too beautiful, with SyWassink’s vocal eloquence removing all the humorous irony from the piece. Still, SyWassink is estimable in her overall effort, showcasing a talent that’s worthy of praise, even if it’s a bit misused.
James Palagi and Rob Minder each do well without saying a word. As the mute King Sexitmus, Palagi gets laughs for his seemingly improvised sign language, which the actor delivers with hilarious comic embellishment. Minder's Wizard is not mute, but while the performer is fine when he's speaking, he's even better when he’s not, portraying smarminess, daftness, and frustration all in one expression. Adam Turner is also impressive as the Jester, while Chris Weber is in strong voice as the Minstrel.
I’ve long loved the music of Once Upon a Mattress, having listened to the soundtrack of the 1996 revival repeatedly. New Era Dinner Theatre’s production, however, marks the first time I’ve seen it staged, and thankfully, Turner’s show meets expectations, fulfilling the musical’s exaggerated necessities and creating a night of pure, theatrical fun.
The New Era Community Building is located at 3455 New Era Road in Muscatine. For Once Upon a Mattress tickets and information, call (563)263-5255 or (563)263-0881.