By Barry Reszel
First-time Director Landree Fleming has taken Theo Ubique Artistic Director Fred Anzevino’s inspired vision to pluck an old musical delight from obscurity (with a more-than-able assist from Casting Director Chris Pazdernik) to bring together a first-rate cast that delivers an absolutely charming production of Once Upon a Mattress.
Celebrating six of 15 cast members who use non-specific gender pronouns (good on you, Theo), this production is perfect for one of this reviewer’s favorite company’s intimate space. It’s funny, a tad bawdy, and extraordinarily well sung.
Based on Hans Christian Andersen’s The Princess and the Pea, and brought to professional musical theatre life in 1959, first off-Broadway, then on, Mattress was nominated for a couple of 1960 Tonys and launched the comedy career of Carol Burnett who—fun fact!—was replaced in the cast by one Ann B. Davis, the famed, loveable housekeeper Alice in TV’s The Brady Bunch.
With a book by Jay Thompson, Dean Fuller and Marshall Barer, music by Mary Rodgers and lyrics by Marshall Barer, it’s an upbeat, tuneful musical based on the adorably outdated premise of a prospective princess needing to prove her royal ancestry via a sensitivity test. Surround it all with an overbearing Queen who’s loathe to allow her son to marry, her mute-by-spell husband, a knight and lady-in-waiting love story, a sassy jester…it’s all just a bunch of good fun. (The plot and professional production history are here for those desiring more detail.)
Indeed, Fleming’s cast is a talented bunch. Jasmine Lacy Young sets the tone as the Poet with the production’s dulcet opening. Lead Sonia Goldberg is simply real (and really talented) as the moat-swimming, princess-wanna-be Winnifred (the Carol Burnett/Ann B. Davis part). Michael M. Ashford and J Alan delight as, respectively, the Jester and Wizard, as does the royal trio of Anne Sheridan Smith as the nasty Queen; Andrew Fortman as the silent King; and August Forman as sweet Prince Dauntless. If there’s a scene stealer, it’s the couple of Michael Metcalf as Sir Harry and Parker Guidry as Lady Larken; their inspired casting and fabulous vocals are true highlights. Sarah J. Patin, Nathe Rowbotham, Peter Ruger and Laura Sportiello round out the cast with terrific voices and dance ability.
Musical Director Jeremy Ramey always delivers top-quality sound from a small ensemble, and this production is no exception. Jakob Levi Smith on guitar, Marcel Reimao Bonfim on bass and Carlos Mendoza on drums/percussion fully complement Ramey’s substantial keyboard skills. Personal vocal highlights include the Sir Harry Lady Larkins duets, “In a Little While” and “Yesterday I Loved You,” along with Princess Winnifred’s “Shy.” And no review of this production would be complete without bestowing accolades on Jester Ashford’s magnificent dance steps (choreography by Jenna Schoppe) in the second act’s “Very Soft Shoes.”
All said, this reviewer’s takeaway from opening night will be a memory of Fleming in the audience, adoringly watching her cast transform their weeks of rehearsals together into a top-notch production. She looked as if it was the first time she heard every joke, the initial belt, the magnificent dance. In short, she was as delighted as the appreciative audience. This fine performer in her own right is just beginning her directorial career. Lucky are we Chicagolanders that it’s unfolding here.
Once Upon at Mattress runs through May 1st at 721 Howard Street, Evanston. For tickets or more information, please click here.
Photos by Liz Lauren.