For the 20th Anniversary of Hot Summer Nights, the annual summer theater program of the University of Cincinnati College Conservatory of Music (CCM), three safe, fun, and older musicals were chosen. The least well known of these shows is the melodic and pleasantly presented Once Upon A Mattress.
Once Upon A Mattress is a quirky retelling of the fairy tale "The Princess and the Pea". The story takes place in a small kingdom in the year 1428. The domineering Queen rules the land and controls her teenage son and mute King husband. Although the prince is of age to marry, the Queen has devised tests impossible for each potential mate to pass. No one else in the kingdom is permitted to marry until Prince Dauntless has wed, and this is especially upsetting to Sir Harry and Lady Larkin, who are secretly expecting a child. However, when Sir Harry leaves in search of a woman who will pass the test and returns with Princess Winnifred, a rough, brazen, yet charming young lady, to vie for the hand of the Prince, the kingdom has hope. With the help of the King, the Minstrel, the Jester, Princess Winnifred is able to pass the test and a happy ending occurs for almost all involved.
Once Upon A Mattress provides a large central role in Winnifred and requires an actress with a strong singing voice, precise comic wit, and lots of energy. CCM's Melissa Bohon meets all of these necessities and more. She possesses a large amount of spunk and a confident (if not overly powerful) voice, and delivers her lines with great humor. Ms. Bohon's diminutive physical stature is used to the benefit of the show as well. As Queen Aggravain, theater professional and CCM staffer Patricia Linhart portrays the antagonist well with the proper mix of wickedness and camp. Josh Dazel is effective as the naïve and bashful Prince Dauntless and Will Ray milks the comedic potential of the mute king role to the maximum with good results. Doug Barton (Minstrel) and J. Michael Kinsey (Jester) both show themselves to be fine singers and actors in supporting roles. As Lady Larkin, Angel Reda especially impresses with both her voice and her acting ability (as she likewise does in this summer's CCM production of Hello Dolly! ). Ian Rhodes, a Wright State University student, sings well and portrays the stiff and unemotional Sir Harry appropriately. The rest of the ensemble also does well.
The score with music by Mary Rodgers (daughter of Richard Rodgers and mother to Adam Guettel) and lyrics by Marshall Barer is highly melodic, fun, witty, and pleasant, if not overly complicated or dramatic. The book, though written over forty years ago (and updated slightly for the recent Broadway revival) remains humorous. Musical Director Chris Fenwick does his usual fine job leading a five-member pit. The somewhat modern and controlled camp of this retelling of a familiar and safe story (with a book credited to Jay Thompson, Dean Fuller and Mr. Barer) makes the show a favorite of many high school and community theater groups and it holds up well even today.
Though the show typically plays well as written, Director/Choreographer Greg Hellems apparently has made a number of specific directorial choices, with varying results. The use of puppets to assist in the initial storytelling of the normal fairy tale is unique and visual rewarding. However, many other decisions can be questioned. There are a few added present day references such as Who Wants To Be A Millionaire towards the start of the show, but then none afterward. Also, the allowance of costumes reflecting various time periods only adds to the confusion. Also, though pushed as a family show (which is generally is), this production seems to overly emphasize several sexual overtones that may or may not exist in the book, most often to its detriment.
The set design by Mark Halpin is attractive and colorful and fitting to the usual concept of the show in general. The costumes, though too varied in style, are beautiful and individually appropriate. The lighting by James H. Gage is professional and suitable.
Once Upon A Mattress is well performed by CCM's Hot Summer Nights cast, and, despite some questionable choices by the director, is a pleasant, fun, and enjoyable show. The musical continues through August 19, 2001. For tickets, call (513) 556-4183.
-- Scott Cain