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Lea DeLaria and cast in Once Upon a Mattress
(Photo © David Allen)
I approached the 42nd Street Moon company's staged concert presentation of Once Upon a Mattress with trepidation, knowing that I was to see Lea DeLaria in the star role of Princess Winnifred the Woebegone. Over the past several years, DeLaria has proven herself to be a wildly inconsistent theater performer: Utterly delightful as Hildy in the Public Theater production of On the Town at the Delacorte in Central Park, she was less delighful when that production finally made it to Broadway. She subsequently floundered when miscast in male roles in the Encores! presentation of L'il Abner and the otherwise excellent 2001 production of The Rocky Horror Show at Circle in the Square, even while doing some creditable turns in cabaret venues and benefit concerts. Last month, DeLaria overacted so horrendously as one of the evil stepsisters in the New York City Opera's Cinderella that she might as well have been performing with a sledgehammer in hand. It would seem that she rises to the occasion only when she knows that she's well cast and is working with a talented director. Both of those conditons prevails in Mattress and, despite a few minor missteps, DeLaria's performance is marvelously entertaining. (What a relief!)

On her best behavior, or close to it, DeLaria is just about perfect for the plum role of the zany tomboy Winnifred ("Fred" for short). If you're reading this review, you probably already know that Mattress -- with music by Mary Rodgers, lyrics by Marshall Barer, and a book by Jay Thompson, Dean Fuller, and Barer -- is a hilariously nutty retelling of the beloved fairy tale "The Princess and the Pea." It's all about a potential princess who is deemed dainty enough to be worthy of marriage to a prince because a single pea placed beneath 20 mattresses is enough to disturb her slumber. In the musical, comic complications ensue from the fact that, by edict, no one in the kingdom is allowed to marry until Prince Dauntless the Drab finds a bride for himself -- and the prospects of that occurring are dim, since his mother is overprotective to a highly unhealthy degree. This presents a big problem for the heroic Sir Harry and his lovely Lady Larken: She finds herself "in the family way," as they used to say, though the couple is unwed. (Bear in mind that Mattress was written in the late 1950s, when birthing children outside of wedlock was a much thornier issue than it is today and -- incredible as this may seem -- sex before marriage was severely frowned upon!) So Harry goes off to find a wife for Dauntless, and he comes up with Winnifred.

DeLaria brings her well-known comic skills and fine singing voice to the role, along with an unexpected degree of warmth. Particularly delightful -- and essential to the success of the show -- is her chemistry with Rudy Guerrero's Dauntless; DeLaria started out as a stand-up comedian and does not always play well with others, but here she's very good at interacting rather than seeming to be in her own show. Yes, she occasionally chews the non-existent scenery; and yes, she does some ad-libbing, not always to great comic effect. (A weird quote from The Sixth Sense, of all things, is a total non-sequitur.) Still, her performance is eminently praiseworthy overall.

Most of the other principals are excellent. Milissa Carey's characterization of the conniving, bossy Queen Aggravain is all the funnier because it's quite subtle. Don Cima is a stitch as her mute spouse, King Sextimus. Charlie Levy displays an uncommonly lovely tenor voice as the Minstrel, and Ron Lytle shines in the Jester's showcase song-and-dance number "Very Soft Shoes." On the debit side, Michael Cronin is rather flat as the Wizard, and Raymond C. Duval has neither the looks nor (more importantly) the voice for Sir Harry. The members of the ensemble are uniformly spirited, singing well under the musical direction of Dave Dobrusky and performing Tom Segal's choreography with infectious brio.

Milissa Carey and Michael Cronin
in Once Upon a Mattress
(Photo © David Allen)
The show itself is a musical comedy gem -- a fact that was obscured by the floppola 1996 Broadway revival in which Sarah Jessica Parker, Jane Krakowski and other estimable talents were misdirected by Gerald Gutierrez. Mary Rodgers' music deserves the ultimate compliment: It withstands comparison to the work of her legendary father, Richard. And Barer's lyrics are nothing short of brilliant. For example: "Alas! A lass is what I lack; I lack a lass. Alas! Alack!" Then there's "Where sir and when sir? I couldn't be tenser." And check out the dazzling interior rhyme in the following lines: "My time is at a premium / For soon the world will see me a m- / -aternal bride to be." Sheer delight! It's a shame that, for whatever reason(s), the subsequent musical theater careers of Rodgers and Barer have been so disappointing.

The 42nd Street Moon production of Mattress is expertly directed by Wayne Bryan, who's something of a musical theater demigod for his work at Music Theatre of Wichita and elsewhere. Aside from a colorful backdrop, the production has no set to speak of, but Barbara Rosen's costuming is quite elaborate and contributes greatly to the merriment. A bit of bad news: Lacking a permanent home, the company has performed in several different venues over the years and has now landed in the Eureka Theatre, a former movie house. The problem is that the troupe (laudably) presents shows without sound amplification, but this theater is acoustically dead. It wouldn't be accurate to say that the actors/singers are inaudible, but sometimes one has to strain to hear them, and their voices don't have the wonderrfully "live" quality that they would have in an acoustically viable house. Pity!

Due within the next few months is a new TV version of Once Upon a Mattress starring Tracey Ullman as Winnifred, Denis O'Hare as Dauntless, and the one-and-only Carol Burnett -- who created the role of Winnifred on Broadway in 1959 and recreated it in two separate television productions -- as Aggravain. With any luck, that broadcast will change the tune of those critics who foolishly responded to the unfortunate Broadway revival by suggesting that the musical itself is wanting. In the meantime, 42nd Street Moon is doing its own part to prove that Mattress is a masterpiece of its kind.

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