Once Upon a Mattress is a lot of people’s musical-theater gateway drug. A fractured reworking of The Princess and the Pea by Mary Rodgers, Marshall Barer, Jay Thompson, and Dean Fuller, it’s been a constant in the community and school repertory since its premiere in 1959; there are nearly 100 productions licensed in the United States for the first quarter of this year alone. That includes the Encores! season opener now onstage at New York City Center, a mounting that takes the comedy at face value and delivers an exuberant, nostalgia-based delight of a time.
I don’t know if I’d consider Mattress the perfect show for a series that celebrates rarely seen musicals, but that high level of thinking is exactly what Barer, Thompson, and Fuller’s book (punched up here by Gilmore Girls creator Amy Sherman-Palladino) and Lear deBessonet’s daffy production discourage. Set in a faraway medieval kingdom ruled by a talkative Queen (Harriet Harris at her Harriet Harris-est) and a mute King (David Patrick Kelly), the esoteric law of the land finds that no one is allowed to get married until their son, Prince Dauntless (Michael Urie), finds his genuine princess. Enter Winnifred the Woebegone (Sutton Foster), first daughter of the nearby swamp, whose arrival signals a sea change in the monarchy. But only if she passes the Queen’s dastardly test…which involves 20 mattresses and one tiny pea.
Like I said, we’re not talking rocket science here, and in the rare case of the theater industry not trying to performatively fix what isn’t broken, deBessonet gives us a Once Upon a Mattress that looks and feels like Once Upon a Mattress, casual misogyny and all. Sherman-Palladino, credited with the concert adaptation, probably lets too much of the book remain — by the middle of the second act, we’re more than ready to get to the point — but aside from adding a couple of jokes and conflating two characters into one (the narrator Minstrel is gone, his songs and situations assigned to J. Harrison Ghee’s Jester), this is the show we all did in fifth grade, albeit with much better costumes here (Andrea Hood’s colorful medieval wear is great) and a 26-piece orchestra dazzlingly playing the Golden Age Hershy Kay, Arthur Beck, and Carroll Huxley orchestrations of Rodgers’s amazing score.
What’s more, it’s perfectly cast from top to bottom, with a dazzling array of rib-ticklers who chew David Zinn’s storybook scenery and discover dramatic heft at the same time. The one major B-plot — lady-in-waiting Larkin (Nikki Renée Daniels, lovely) finds herself unexpectedly pregnant with the baby of dashing knight Sir Henry (Cheyenne Jackson, perfect as the brawny dimwit), and they must either get married or she needs to flee to spare them the embarrassment — is a surprisingly affecting one in our current times. Their duets “In a Little While” and “Yesterday I Loved You” are enchanting, but the fact that they manage to insert actual life-or-death stakes is what’s impressive.
While Harris (sauntering around like the Queen of Hearts), Kelly (making a silent meal out of silly gestures), Ghee (suave), and Francis Jue (as the magical Wizard) are clearly having a grand ol’ time with their enthusiasm extending across the proscenium, the night belongs to Urie and Foster, who haven’t met a line or glance they couldn’t get a laugh on. Urie gives us a dullard man-child’s impression of Moira Rose, albeit with a big, open heart. You really do root for him to find the one, and his “I’m in Love With a Girl Name Fred” is the cathartic explosion it deserves to be.
Foster seizes the spotlight from the second she climbs onstage, peeling leeches off her back and a racoon out of her endless mane (J. Jared Janas’s wigs add another level of humor). As a slack-jawed yokel, she gives a performance that looks like a homage to role originator Carol Burnett by way of Gumby, flinging herself across the stage with reckless abandon. It’s as much of a death-defying acrobatic turn as it is a comedic one. And it’s just so satisfying.
So too is the show: just a great night out, and one that will delight people of all ages. Once Upon a Mattress never goes out of style.