What I learned. . .

I was delighted to receive (and accept) the offer to direct Mary Rodgers’ silly and splendid musical, Once Upon A Mattress for the BFA acting program at Utah State University not just because it’s a fun and solid piece, but because I happened to play the role of Prince Dauntless the Drab my senior year of high school, and could not have had more fun doing so. Not too long before beginning rehearsals in Logan, I spent the weekend with a good friend from high school who had hoped to play Princess Winnifred the Woebegone, but ran the follow spot instead.  As we drove from Irvine to Palm Springs, California after seeing our friend, Tarah Flanagan, in a searing performance of  Lisa Peterson and Denis O’Hare’s An Iliad at UC Irvine, we surprised ourselves by being able to sing the entire score as we listened to the original cast recording on the two hour drive back to the desert.  In spite of the years in between, the memories had not faded.

What I mostly discovered about Once Upon A Mattress is that it is an incredibly witty piece with an abundance of language-based jokes, along with some cultural references of the time in which it was written, which manage to still hold up today. The biggest challenge was what to do with the inherent sexism of the piece, primarily in plot line involving the skirt-chasing, King Sextimus the Silent, Prince Dauntless’s mute but lively father. I found that there were ways to empower the ladies of the court of whom Sextimus was in constant pursuit . . . that the occasional “talk to the hand” gesture (or its verbal equivalent) aimed directly at the King maintained his status while also letting the women not be victimized. The play requires a deft touch and a light hand, and I think we were able to provide that in this particular instance . . . sledgehammers were not required.

I had a terrific cast of eager and committed theatre and music department students, a lovely team of designers, and a generous schedule in which to accomplish the work. I re-learned that some material just doesn’t need to be tinkered with – that finding the ways and means to honor the original source and let it stand on its own was the best way in which to serve the work. Ours was a lovely and loving production and had the added delight of being attended on opening night by several of my high school classmates (including my score-singing friend) who seemed to enjoy the trip down memory lane as much as I did working on the piece.

Once Upon A Mattress

Utah State University/Caine College of the Arts

February, 2018

Once Upon a Mattress, produced jointly by Utah State University’s Theatre Arts and Music Departments in the Morgan Theatre of the Chase Fine Arts Center, keeps Logan audiences in stitches with this offbeat retelling of the Princess and the Pea. With music by Mary Rodgers, lyrics by Marshall Barer and book by Jay Thompson, Dean Fuller and Marshall Barer, Once Upon a Mattress tells the ‘real’ story of how Queen Aggravain (Rachael Hodge) tries to keep Prince Dauntless the Drab (Dane Michael Braddy) from finding his perfect princess. After Princess #12 (Lainey Lily Woo) fails to pass the test, the members of the court fear they are doomed to remain single forever, as the Queen has decreed that no one in the kingdom can marry before the prince. Lady Larkin (Katie Fay Francis) finds herself in a bit of a predicament that makes marriage to Sir Harry (Mitch Shira) an urgent matter. With some help from the Prince, The Minstrel (Justin Turpin), The Jester (Adam Michael Mantell) and King Sextimus the Silent (Alex Smith), she convinces the Queen to allow Sir Harry to set out in search of a real princess. When he returns with Princess Winnifred the Wobegone (Madison Archibald), who is so excited that she swims the moat, hilarity ensues. The libretto and the score are packed full of witty repartee and memorable music, leading up to the finale of 20 mattresses and one little pea.

“Let me start this review by congratulating the ensemble on a job well done. I can’t say enough about the talent of the entire cast. Without their energy, vocal skills and dance ability, the show would not be able to engage the audience for the full 2 ½ hours. They are 100% invested from the first tableau to the final bow. The choreography by Stephanie R. White is perfectly suited to their skills and makes each cast member shine. Every time any of the corps enters the stage for a scene or crossover, their characters are alive and vibrant. The Music Direction by Dallas Heaton and Sound Design by Ben Bielefeld work beautifully together to balance the perfectly sung harmonies with the live orchestra and to bring the audience right into the action. Bravo to these often-unheralded members of the cast.

“The leading men of this show are handsome, vocally talented and each is a fantastic actor. Braddy, with his baby face, is the perfect Prince. It is fun to watch his character transform from a ‘mama’s boy’ into a man. The King is remarkably acted by Smith, who carries on complete conversations without using his voice, and his face is as expressive as his body is agile. Although his character is a womanizer and is constantly chasing the maidens around the castle, I appreciated that I never got a ‘dirty old man’ vibe and that the subject matter was kept family friendly while adhering faithfully to the script. The Wizard (Tyler Matthew Campbell) elicits giggles from the audience every time he uses his magic and is the perfect sidekick to the Queen. The warm vocals of Turpin as The Minstrel are soothing and his antics are comical. The musical number, “The Minstrel, The Jester and I,” performed with Smith and Mantrell, is one of the many highlights of the show. One of the most poignant moments of the evening comes as Mantrell’s character, The Jester, gives tribute to his father in “Very Soft Shoes.” His dancing is elegant and he executes White’s blend of ballet and soft shoe with ease. Finally, Shira’s Sir Harry is a truly chivalrous knight. He is a strong romantic lead and plays beautifully against Lady Larkin.

“As good as the men are, the leading ladies truly steal the show. Francis, as Larkin, is the consummate ingenue with a voice as velvety smooth as her beautifully flattering costume. Her high notes soar and her portrayal of Lady Larkin is flawless. In complete contrast, but equally as commanding, Hodge’s Queen Agravaine is perfectly overbearing. Her vocals are strong and she completely demands the audience’s attention every time she steps on the stage. Her costumes, designed by Lydia Semler and Vanessa Buck, are show-stopping and her amazing headpiece all but demands its own zip code. The overall costume design is playful, with a creative mix of period and modern, and delightfully defines each character. I also should mention the cameo appearance of the Nightingale of Samarkand (Alyssa Burton), which was in turns hauntingly lyrical and hysterically funny.

“Lest you think I was going to forget her, I have saved the best for last. Madison Archibald is stunning. It would be fair to say that I was completely captivated by her portrayal of Princess Winnifred, from her soggy entrance to her final snore. Everything about her character is exactly right on. Her comic timing is perfection and her ‘unprincess-like’ character is played with such aplomb that you would swear that she, herself, was from the “land of the foggy-foggy dew.” Her voice is amazing and her first solo “Shy” brings down the house. My favorite number from the show, “Happily Ever After,” is ovation-worthy and her rendition made my sides ache from laughter.

“The entire production team should be congratulated. The direction by Guest Director Paul Mason Barnes is clever and bold and makes this show’s ‘bigger than life’ characters completely believable. The beautiful set by Dwight Camillucci creates the ideal acting space, with rotating pieces, flying stained glass, stairs, multiple levels, and of course, a 20-foot-high bed. The lighting design by Bruce Duerden brings the raucous staging to life and the gorgeous moon in the background shines brightly on the lovers. I am always delighted by a live orchestra and want to thank Dallas Heaton and the Utah State Music Department for this important addition to the show. The Technical Direction (Scott Richardson), Properties (Robin Perry) and Stage Management (Ashley Winch) are all executed with excellence and contribute greatly to the quality of the production.

“I would recommend this show to anyone, probably age 10 and up, who needs a good laugh or just enjoys quality musical theatre. Parking for the Morgan Theatre is a bit tricky, but once you get inside the Chase Fine Arts Center, they do a great job of directing you to the theatre with their recently updated signage. However, I would suggest wearing good walking shoes and waterproof mascara (for the ladies), as the laughter just might bring you to tears.

     Debbie Ditton

     Front Row Reviewers