ENTERTAINING CARICATURES It is a fairy tale, after all.
Fairy tales seem to have an enduring appeal — especially when they're tweaked to look just a little bit less rarified. Hence audiences' continued affection for the 1959 musical Once Upon a Mattress, whose Prince is not a hero and whose tomboy Princess was raised in a swamp. It plays now at Lyric Music Theatre, where Michael Donovan directs a charming revival of the irreverent little love story about a Princess and a fateful Pea.
That pea, you'll recall, is part of the latest in a series of impossible tests that Queen Aggravain (Patricia Davis), a coddling terror of a matriarch, has devised to keep her infantilized but big-hearted son, Prince Dauntless (John Robinson), from marrying. Aggravain has ruled that only a true princess — "delicate as a dragonfly's wing," as the lyric goes — will be getting hitched to Dauntless. And not only that, but her impossible tests for girls also keep everybody else at court from matrimony, a particularly time-sensitive problem for Lady Larken (Alison Bogannan) since she snuck off with Sir Harry (Bryan Robicheau) to, ahem, "watch the sun go down." But the latest princess, Princess Winnifred (Crystal Giordano), is a force of nature who just might, with a little help, be able to beat Aggravain at her own game. With assistance from the canny Minstrel (the antic and entertaining Vince Knue), the Jester (Joe Swenson), and Dauntless's mute rascal of a dad, King Sextimus (John Schrank) the powers of love might finally prevail.
At the crazy heart of this show, Giordano's Princess Winnifred (or Fred, as she becomes known) is a beautifully loony and boisterous delight with a big, supple, wide-ranging voice. The song in which she tells of her own kingdom, "The Swamps of Home," sung fetchingly under a green gel, is deep, fluid, and filled with deliciously slippery elisions.
As the tension ratchets up at court, and as Fred reels through puppy-love, dancing, inebriation, and exhaustion, her physical comedy is ever more of a gas. She's superbly outfitted in greens, dull golds, and earth-tones, and a few thick locks of her dark hair — I just love this part –are dyed dark green.
Fred and everybody else are, of course, blithely overblown caricatures, and both actors and costumes (which are sumptuous, in Louise Keezer's impressive design) play them up entertainingly. Dauntless, a rosy-cheeked grinner with a platinum page-boy, wears some seriously fun medieval-glam garb — where oh where did they find those gorgeously dusky-sparkly tights he wears under his royal shorts? Robinson milks his duds for all they're worth with his merry vamping — now effeminate, now boyish — and he looks great doing it. In fact, everyone at court looks great in their jewel-tones, an oft-changing array of wine-red and sapphire.
Meanwhile, Schrank's mute King Sextimus chases futilely after ladies in princely short-pants and a cartoon cushion of a crown, shrugging and pouting endearingly like a big, pasty child. He winningly mimes his courtly concern for the anxious Lady Larken, whom Bogannan plays as sweet and spunky. Though her voice sometimes strains a bit in Larken's higher registers, she's a dynamic presence on stage, and she has an appealing rapport with Sir Harry, who in Robicheau's hands has a great knightly earnestness and a strong voice.