Once upon a time in the musical theatre, stories were light and (with the exception of Rogers and Hammerstein) not filled with social commentary or import. These were the days you could lose yourself in the sillyness of the show, and just relish in beautiful music, wonderful lyrics, and great performances. Last night, we saw one of those shows when we went out to Thousand Oaks to see Cabrillo Music Theatre‘s perfect production of “Once Upon a Mattress“. There’s one more performance of the show today at 2pm: if you can do so, go go go — it is well worth seeing.
“Once Upon a Mattress” (music by Mary Rogers, lyrics by Marshall Barer, with a book by Jay Thompson, Dean Fuller, and Marshall Barer) is a musical retelling of Hans Christian Andersen‘s “The Princess and the Pea“. But this isn’t your typical fairy tale. Sure, the story begins with the minstrel singing a traditional version, but as he quickly points out, that’s only the popularized version. He knows the true story because he was there! He then proceeds to tell you that story. It is a tale about a kingdom ruled by talkative Queen Aggravain, and mute King Sextimus (the king is mute due to a curse, and will remain mute until “the mouse devours the hawk”). Their 36-year old son, Prince Dauntless, wants to marry but cannot until a suitable queen is found. As the story begins, twelve have tried, and all twelve have been rejected by the Queen as ersatz princesses, having failed “fixed” princess-tests devised by the queen and the wizard. The Lady Larkin also wants to marry her suitor, Sir Harry — in fact, she needs to marry him within a few months before she starts to “show” — but cannot because of a rule in the Kingdom that no one can wed before Daultless shares his wedding bed. So Sir Harry goes out to find a princess, and brings back Princess Winnifred. Winnifred is so eager to meet the Prince that she swims the moat. Soon, she had charmed everyone with her energy and playfullness and joie de vivre. Everyone but the Queen, who is convinced she is not the princess. So she devises a new test: the princess will sleep that night on a bed of 20 matresses from the Sleep Shoppe (the show’s “mattress sponsor” :-)) with one pea at the bottom. If she stays awake: she passes the test. Just to ensure she will sleep, the Queen tuckers her out with a full-on dancing ball, sleeping potions, and a soothing songbird. But the Minstrel, Jester, and King have other ideas–they want this princess, and so they conspire to discover the test and make sure the princess passes.
A fairy story. A silly story. But one needs that sort of story now and then. Making this story better is the delightful music by Mary Rodgers (one of her few successful shows) and the lyrics by Barer, which I appreciate more and more everytime I hear them. Barer has a playfullness in his wordplay that reminds me of Sondheim: internal rhymes, internal puns. An example of this is the second song — “An Opening For a Princess”, which includes the lines “Alas, a lass is what I lack / I lack a lass, alas alack.” It continues throughout the entire show with phrases like “I’m going fishing for a mate / I’m going to look in ev’ry brook / But how much longer must I wait / with baited breath and hook”. This playfulness, combined with double entendres (which were also implied in the original story), make the liberetto a pure joy.
So you take this wonderful show, and add astounding direction from Richard Israel (an extremely creative local musical director) and the perfect cast, and the result is magical. Israel’s direction is playful and inventive, and brings a joy and delight out of the actors that is communicated to the audience. The direction makes the performance seem effortless: nothing is forced, and nothing seems out of characters.
Adding to this, as I said before, is the perfect cast. As always, Cabrillo’s cast is a mix of locals and selected professionals. Leading this cast is Bets Malone* (Princess Winnifred), a wonderful performer we’ve seen numerous times. Bets embodies Winnifred with a joy and playfulness and energy and wonderful comic timing. She makes the show, and from her performance you can see why this role can make a comic actress famous (look what it did for the originator, Carol Burnett). One side note: As the Queen is getting Winnifred ready for bed, she talks about the sandman coming to put the princess to sleep. I was half expecting for Bets to suddenly drop into “Suzy” from Wonderettes and do a few bars from “Mr. Sandman”! Winnifred is also a very physical role, and Bets handles the physical comedy with aplomb and style. [Note: * denotes "Actors Equity" members]
But this cast is more than just Bets. The cast has the best minstrel, hands down, that I have ever heard. Danny Gurwin* has a wonderful singing voice that just makes you melt. He is also playful with his role (I’ll use that word a lot): having fun and inviting the audience in to share the fun. He particularly shines in the opening number and in “Normandy”. Also playful is Scott Reardon as Prince Dauntless. Reardon, who also has a great singing voice, captures Dautless’s cluelessness and eagerness, and you can just see Dauntless and Winnifred as a couple that are in love. Each has a childlike nature that complements the other.
The couple that is not in love are the King and Queen. As Queen Aggravain, Tracy Lore* brings vanity to a new level. She only has one song (the original actress, according to what I read, could not sing well), but brings a wonderful comic sensitivity to the role. Hers is not a physical role — it is character acting and is done well. As the King, David Newcomer brings no singing to the role — in fact, he has only a few lines. But his role brings something you don’t often see–playful pantomime. Newcomer is a master of comic movement and pantomime.
As the secondary couple (every musical of the era had one), we have Noelle Marion as Lady Larkin and Isaac James as Sir Harry. Both have delightful singing voices. They are believable as a couple, and are also having fun with their roles. They get many of the romantic Rounding out the featured positions are Timothy Stokel as the Jester (who does a great job with his number “Very Soft Shoes”) and David Gilchrist (who we saw in “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” and numerous CMT shows) at the Wizard.
Supporting cast members are: Sam Ayoub (Lord Heathcliff), Jennifer Bainbridge (Lady Marian), John Paul Batista (Lord Purell), Sydney Blair (Lady Rowena), Kathryn Burns (Lady Babette), Emma Chandler (Lady Lucille), Courtney Cheatham (Lady Lola), Judy Domroy (Lady Merrill), Emily Goglia (Princess Nº 12/Lady Lestrange), Holly Long (Lady Beatrice), Michael Marchak (Lord Claudio), Brett McMahon (Lord Peter), Alex Mendoza (Lord Dashwood), Courtney Potter (Lady Vivien), Tanner Richins (Sir Harold), Tyler Scheef (Lord Virgo), Josh Smith (Lord Leopold), Brandon Stanford (Lord Mischievious), Veronica Stevens (Lady Gaga), Matt Wiley (Lord Phillip).
Rounding out the performance aspects are the underlying dance and music artists. The choreography by Cheryl Baxter is remarkable: from the clear dances such as the Spanish Panic number, to the soft shoe of the Jester, to the comic choreography of Princess Winnifred in numbers such as “Shy” or “Song of Love”, to the pantomime of the “Man to Man” talk — the movement in this show is just delightful. Richard Israel, the director, took the interesting tactic of putting the Orchestra onstage, in turrets, in costume, interacting with the actors. The large (17 piece!) orchestra — led by Daniel Thomas as musical director and conductor — handled this wonderfully, including when Bets Malone took over conducting duties!
Having the orchestra led to some interesting staging. The scenery and lighting design, by Jean-Yves Tessier, was inventive and playful. Many have written about how Tessier created a castle hallway by flying in a set of famous portraits all featuring Tracy Lore’s face as the Queen; these included “American Gothic,” “Whistler’s Mother”, the Mona Lisa, Pinkie, the Scream, Andy Warhol’s Marilyn, … and my favorite, Dogs Playing Poker. But that’s only part of the set inventiveness. I particularly noted the lighting projections and the mattress structure.. He even threw in the kitchen sink (don’t believe me — look what they pull out of the bed in the end). The wardrobe by Christine Gibson and hair and makeup by Mark Travis Hoyer complement the characters well, even if more cartoony than period. Jonathan Burke’s sound design made everything clear and audible (although our performance had a few minor mic problems, quickly corrected). Technical direction was by Tim Schroepfer. Allie Roy was the production stage manager, assisted by Jessica Standifer and Julia Pinhey.
Lewis Wilkenfeld is the artistic director of Cabrillo, and deserves a special note for coming out and shilling each show. He’ll even sell you the props from the stage to keep Cabrillo going–he believes in Cabrillo that much. Seriously: Wilkenfeld appears to work hard to keep Cabrillo involved with the community and to keep the doors open. It is a shame that more people don’t come to Cabrillo’s shows: we’ve always found them well done and professional — the equal to Ahmanson or the tours that hit the Pantages, but with local actors, great acoustics, and remarkable pricing. They are doing a special to get children to attend live theatre.
The last performance of “Once Upon a Mattress” is today at 2pm. You can get tickets at the Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza box office.
Upcoming Theatre, Concerts, and Dance: I’m still thinking about booking tickets for “The Heiress” at the Pasadena Playhouse for next weekend (I heard it on LA Theatre Works and it sounds good). If we are going with what is ticketed, May begins with “Dames at Sea” at the Colony. It also brings the senior dance show at Van Nuys HS, the Spring Railfest at Orange Empire, “The Great American Trailer Park Musical” at REP East, and it may also bring “Follies” at the Ahmanson. Oh, and May also has my daughter’s HS graduation. June is more open, but does feature both “Addams Family” and “Million Dollar Quartet” at the Pantages. As always, open dates are subject to be filled in with productions that have yet to appear on the RADAR of Goldstar or LA Stage Alliance.
Music: Drive Time (Doyle Lawson and Quicksilver): Gone at Last