ABC's decision to schedule this "Once Upon a Mattress" revival a week before Christmas doubtless reflects an understandable vote of no confidence. Despite the symmetry of Carol Burnett returning to play the queen in a show she originated as Princess Winnifred onstage 46 years ago, this overly broad storybook project feels painfully dated.
ABC’s decision to schedule this “Once Upon a Mattress” revival (originally slated for last spring) a week before Christmas doubtless reflects an understandable vote of no confidence. Despite the symmetry of Carol Burnett returning to play the queen in a show she originated as Princess Winnifred onstage 46 years ago (and played twice more on TV in 1964 and ’72), this overly broad storybook project feels painfully dated. Even with Tracey Ullman vamping every bit as much as Burnett in the Winnifred role, this “Mattress” is a poor companion for an evening on the couch.
Large and talented cast is partly confined by the theatrical sets and backdrops, creating the feel of a filmed play more than a conventional telepic. And while there are musical numbers aplenty, as well as exaggerated Bob Mackie gowns for Burnett to saunter around in, neither the score nor the staging is memorable enough to make any of it come alive.
In this fractured fairy tale version of “The Princess and the Pea,” Burnett’s Queen Aggravain is a cloying, domineering shrew who concocts elaborate tests to prevent anyone from marrying her son, Prince Dauntless (Denis O’Hare), who yearns to wed despite his Oedipal issues.
Nor is Dauntless the only one invested in his connubial future, since the queen has ordained that no one in the kingdom may marry until he does. This comes as bad news for Lady Larken (Zooey Deschanel), who, by virtue of an indiscretion with the otherwise-virtuous Sir Harry (Matthew Morrison), needs to get hitched soon before she becomes a single mom.
Enter the brassy, unpolished Winnifred, a princess candidate like none other. Dauntless instantly falls for her, but Aggravain and her minion the Wizard (Edward Hibbert) conspire to keep them apart with the challenge of whether she can feel a pea under 20 mattresses, even as the rest of the court — including the mute King Sextimus (Tom Smothers) — labors to bring the couple together.
Choreographer Kathleen Marshall makes her TV directing debut here, but despite some fancy footwork, the production never kicks up a spark. That’s in part because almost every performance sails over the top, which doubtless would play better in a theater than in the sanctity of the living room.
Part of the problem, too, is that this “Wonderful World of Disney” presentation comes as ABC has dramatically downplayed that franchise (housed here in its old Sunday berth), which saw better days back when it was adapting musicals like “Annie” and “Cinderella” for the small screen.
The sun may come up on “Wonderful World” again, but for this princess, that someday comes a little too late.