Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Francisco

Lea DeLaria is a Loving Dynamo in
Once Upon a Mattress

Also see Richard's reviews of Emma

Lea DeLaria gives a captivating, madcap performance as Winnifred the Woebegone in the Mary Rodgers/Marshall Barer/Jay Thompson/Dean Fuller zany musical Once Upon a Mattress, currently being presented by the 42nd Street Moon at the Eureka Theatre. DeLaria will be breaking up audiences through January 2, 2005 with her wacky performance.

On May 11, 1959, I attended the Broadway opening night of this fractured fairy tale at the Broadhurst Theatre, where it played for 460 performances. Carol Burnett was a relative unknown when she went on the stage that night, and she became a star overnight with kudos from all the critics as the Princess from the foggy, foggy dew. She was supported by Jane White, who also became a sensation as Queen Aggravain. Jack Gilford and Joseph Bova rounded out the cast as King Sextimus and Prince Dauntless. The musical would have run longer, but Ms. Burnett had to leave the cast due to the neck and back injuries she had sustained. The show tried to struggle along with replacements but closed due to poor box office. Once Upon a Mattress took to the road with Dody Goodman as Winnifred and Buster Keaton playing the mute king.

In 1964, CBS televised a cut-down version with most of the original players, including Ms. Burnett. Some of the songs were removed and one song was added for the 90-minute production with Lipton Tea commercials. The network also did a color version later, but somehow Carol seemed more like a Broadway diva repeating her role, and some of her craziness was lost. The slick color "spectacular" featured a young Bernadette Peters playing Lady Larken - she almost stole the show from Carol.

Broadway saw a major revival of the Rodgers/Barer musical in 1996, but it was a failure, mostly due to the miscasting of Sarah Jessica Parker, who was just too cute and not physical enough for the role. This has not stopped high schools, colleges and regional theatre groups from putting on the screwball musical. Once Upon a Mattress is currently being filmed for television for the third time by Disney for airing next year on ABC during sweeps week. This time, Carol Burnett will take over the role of Queen Aggravain while Tracy Ullman will play the swampy princess who has trouble sleeping. Tom Smothers will play King Sextimus.

The musical is based on Hans Christian Andersen's fairy tale, The Princess and the Pea. As the Minstrel (Charlie Levy) says, Andersen's story has it all wrong, so he will tell "the adult version" of the story. The plot still centers around Prince Dauntless the Drab (Rudy Guerrero) whose mother Queen Aggravain (Milissa Carey) is seeking to keep the boy (he is 32 years old now) to herself and has declared that he will wed only a true princess of royal blood. Enter Princess Winnifred, who arrives dripping wet from swimming the castle moat - twice. She comes from the swamplands across the mountains and declares herself a contender for the Prince's hand. The mother queen from hell devises a clever test to determine whether this self-proclaimed princess is worthy of her son. Well, we all know what happens. There is a nice subplot with a romance between Lady Larken (Susan Himes Powers) and Sir Harry (Raymond C. Duval) for the romantics in the audience.

Once Upon a Mattress is not a classic in the convention of big Broadway shows, but it is still a fun and effervescent show with Mary Rogers' bouncy music and the witty lyrics of Marshall Barer. Lea DeLaria (Broadway star, including Hilda in the revival of On the Town) plays the wet princess more slapstick than either Burnett or Parker. It is more like old time vaudeville or a burlesque performance, but she is an absolute hoot in the role. She belts out each song with her powerhouse voice that resonates through the whole theatre. Her rendition of "Happily Ever After" is a standout. It brings down the house.

DeLaria is backed up by top-form performances from several Bay Area favorites. Rudy Guerrero makes Prince Dauntless a fine foil for DeLaria's Winnifred. He has fine vocal chops in his duet "Song of Love" and is ingenious in "Man to Man Talk," with veteran actor/singer Don Cima as the mute king doing a splendid job of not talking. Both give top grade performances. Milissa Carey is wonderful as the icy, conniving Queen - the musical's juiciest role. Her vocal inflections are intoned with superiority and selfishness.

Susan Himes Powers and Raymond C. Duval, as Lady Larken and Sir Harry, make an excellent romantic couple. Ms. Powers' lovely bell-clear voice and Duval's smooth voice are great in the duet "In a Little While." Charlie Levy, aided by Ron Lytle as the Jester, and Susan Powers' rendition of "Normandy" is beautifully sung. Special notice should also be given to Ron Lytle when he sings and soft shoe dances about how he played the palace with the song "Very Soft Shoes."

The direction of Wayne Bryan (Music Theatre of Witchita director) is first rate, and he keeps the action tight and fast paced. There are no dull spots in this production. Tom Segal's choreography, especially the "Spanish Panic" number, is well done, especially for such a small stage. Segal retains the Joe Layton choreography of the original production. Barbara Rosen has costumed the cast in medieval fairy tale colorful wear that looks very authentic. Dave Dobrusky gives the production that certain pizzazz with his arrangements on the piano.

Once Upon a Mattress plays at the Eureka Theatre, 215 Jackson Street between Battery and Front, San Francisco through January 2, 2005. Tickets can be obtained by calling the Yerba Buena Center Box Office at 415-978-2787 daily from 1 pm to 6 pm. To order online and for more information visit

Their next production has been changed to Larry Grossman and Hal Hackady's Minnie's Boys, which opens on March 30th.

Photo: David Allen

Cheers - and be sure to Check the lineup of great shows this season in the San Francisco area

- Richard Connema

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