As pretty as a princess and bright as happily ever after, Gerald Gutierrez’s revival of “Once Upon a Mattress” still can’t quite turn a pumpkin into a coach. A pleasant though unexceptional musical comedy in 1959 — and the description still holds — “Mattress” is best remembered for helping introduce a young Carol Burnett to the world, and while it won’t work similar magic for the miscast (however likable) Sarah Jessica Parker, it is not the grim fairy tale that rumor and pre-opening gossip items have described.
Staged in the visually vibrant, slightly cartoonish style of last season’s “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,” the new “Mattress” all too soon shows itself to be the lumpier of the two. A book that’s not quite sharp enough, lyrics that only occasionally rise to the level of wit in “Forum” and music that few will remember after a good night’s sleep, “Mattress” is grade-B stuffing even under the best of circumstances.
And, alas and alack (as one character sings), this revival is hardly the best of circumstances. Gutierrez, who’s directed two of Broadway’s finest play revivals in as many seasons (“A Delicate Balance,” “The Heiress”) and memorably resurrected the Frank Loesser musical “The Most Happy Fella” in 1992, seems oddly constricted here. Much of the action is confined to one-third of the stage, the comedy doesn’t always generate the laughs it should and little is made of secondary characters that, truth be told, have little intrinsic value anyway. And that’s not to mention a second act that veers too long from both the princess character and her central storyline, the musical’s sole reason for being.
None of which is to say that the production lacks all charm, or that the musical itself is anything less than a sweet-tempered diversion. Audiences might not find the enchantment they’re seeking (neither will the box office), but few will leave the theater grumpier than when they came in.
Based on the Hans Christian Andersen story “The Princess and the Pea,” “Mattress” spins the tale of a medieval kingdom’s search for a proper princess to marry the hapless Prince Dauntless (David Aaron Baker). Everyone, from the knights and ladies who can’t wed until the Prince is married off, to the henpecked King Sextimus (Heath Lamberts), wants to see the lonely prince engaged. Everyone, that is, except the domineering Queen Aggravain (Mary Lou Rosato in the standout performance), more shrew than Disney villainess but unwilling to cut the royal apron strings nonetheless.
Enter Winnifred the Woebegone (Parker), princess of the far-off swampland Farfelot brought to the castle by Sir Harry (Lewis Cleale). Harry has no time to waste in seeing the Prince married, since his own lady in waiting (Jane Krakowski) is waiting for a little bundle of joy.
Making her entrance looking like a drowned rat — she swam the moat — Winnifred, or Fred to her friends, is altogether too common for the Queen’s taste. “Blood will tell,” spits the Queen, “and yours doesn’t tell quite enough.” The Prince, however, falls immediately in love.
But the Princess must first pass a test proving she’s the real deal: Unbeknownst to her, the Queen has placed the smallest pea in the kingdom under a tower of mattresses 20-high. Falling asleep atop the pile would prove that Winnifred isn’t delicate enough to be a true Princess.
To ensure the beauty falls asleep, the Queen throws an impromptu ball to dance the Princess into exhaustion — and, one suspects, to provide the musical with its big ensemble number. Choreographer Liza Gennaro has designed the “Spanish Panic” (a dance craze sweeping the kingdom) as a sort of jitterbug meets the Macarena, with flashes of the Charleston and rumba tossed in before the entire melange slides into a ’70s disco line. For a brief while, “Mattress” comes alive with an irreverence that is generally lacking elsewhere.
Unfortunately, the second act retreats from the high spirits. After the tired Princess is led to her bed, “Mattress” pads itself with side stories (and musical numbers) about the King and his son, the attempts of a Jester (David Hibbard) and Minstrel (Lawrence Clayton) to undermine the Queen’s plan, and the love story between Sir Harry and the pregnant Lady Larkin (“God knows I’m a Lady in Waiting,” she says).
When the moment everyone has been waiting for — Winnifred’s climb to the top of her bed — finally arrives late in Act II, “Mattress” has the potential to soar, or at least indulge in the broad physical comedy that would become Carol Burnett’s trademark. And while Parker gamely jostles and tosses and turns, her unsuccessful attempts at sleep lack the comic timing that neither she nor Gutierrez seem to possess. Since there’s no buildup to the bouncing, there’s no payoff, either.
Still, one can’t help rooting for the very congenial Parker. So amiable is the actress’s personality and so strenuous her endeavors at physical comedy that one wants to forgive her vocal limitations. But time and again, the numbers that should be showstoppers — “Shy,” “Happily Ever After” — fall short as Parker struggles for pitch and range and the vocal bravado that her boisterous character should exude. Nor is she helped (although the production is) by the fact that others in the cast far outshine her singing talent, including Baker as the Prince and Cleale and Krakowski as the tuner’s other lovestruck couple.
The fuzzy-headed, red-nosed Lamberts is fine as the compassionate King made mute by a curse (even if the character’s constant harassing of pretty girls is as dated comically as it is politically). Hibbard is very good as the Jester, giving the role more panache than the writers’ did. Best of all is Rosato as the icy, conniving Queen, diving headfirst into the musical’s juiciest role.
Rosato and the rest are helped immeasurably by Jane Greenwood’s brilliantly colorful fairy tale costumes, heavy on the silks, satins and velvets in what might be the most eye-popping medieval garb to hit a Broadway stage. John Lee Beatty’s sets of palace ballrooms and high-tower boudoirs are equally dazzling, although a fuller use of the stage might give the production an airier, less confined feel than it currently has. Still, Beatty must be responsible for the nicely hued stack of mattresses, and a hat box shaped like the conical headdresses worn by the ladies gets one of the biggest laughs of the show — an observation that may say more than intended about “Once Upon a Mattress.”