ONCE UPON A MATTRESS Enchants at Hopkins
“The Princess and the Pea,” like most fairy tales, is a deceptively simple story. To keep a young woman from marrying her son, a jealous queen devises an impossible test. The queen places a single pea beneath a pile of mattresses in the young woman’s bed, reasoning that only a true princess would be sensitive enough to feel it. Naturally the young woman cannot sleep a wink, her royal identify is confirmed, she marries the prince, and lives happily ever after.
Unlike in other fairy-tale adaptations (particularly those branded by Disney), in Once Upon a Mattress—the 1959 musical retelling of “The Princess and the Pea”—there are no magical creatures or cute animals to help pad the source material. Instead, co-authors Jay Thompson, Dean Fuller, and Marshall Barer (who also collaborated on the score with composer Mary Rodgers, daughter of Richard Rodgers) surround their princess and prince with a court full of eccentrics: a mute king who spends his time chasing wenches; a jester, a minstrel, and a wizard who share backgrounds in vaudeville; a dashing knight and a beautiful lady-in-waiting, whose on-again, off-again romance forms a curiously underwritten subplot.
As a result, the impression one gets watching Once Upon a Mattress is that most of the show consists of characters stalling for the climactic moment when the princess ascends her mountainous bed. Which is pretty much the only gripe I have about the current production by the JHU Barnstormers, the student-run theatre troupe at Johns Hopkins University. Director Tom Ridgely has gathered a talented cast of actor-singer-dancers, highlighted by Erica Bauman, whose star turn as Princess Winifred is so hilariously, heartwarmingly satisfying, it is difficult to imagine Carol Burnett (who originated the role on Broadway) or Tracey Ullman (who played Winifred in a 2005 TV movie) doing any better.
Though Bauman commands our attention from the moment she appears, dripping wet, at the palace gate (so anxious is Winifred to meet the prince, she swims the moat), hers is far from the only standout performance. As the devious Queen Aggravain, Jessica Gartner embodies (naturally) aggravation and vanity, emphasizing every blustering syllable to great effect with a seemingly limitless repertoire of haughty gestures. Gordon Mack proves a similarly skilled gesturer as King Sextimus, who has been silenced by a curse and therefore communicates entirely through pantomime—including during two songs, “The Minstrel, the Jester, and I” and “ Man to Man Talk,” which Mack and his scene partners execute with precision timing. (The latter song is a particularly inspired take on that awkward moment in the lives of every father and son when the older generation must tell the younger where babies come from.)
As Prince Dauntless (the Drab), Rob Keleher bounces nimbly from Winifred to Sextimus to his Freudian nightmare of a mother, always with the same naïve smile on his face. In the aforementioned subplot, Gerrad Taylor and Carol Santoro are as convincing lovers as their two-dimensional roles allow, and they bring fine voices and chemistry to the show’s featured ballads, “In a Little While” and “Yesterday I Loved You,” both pleasantly hummable melodies. (Dauntless and Winifred sing a far more raucous “Song of Love” to close Act One.) Attention must also be paid to Vanna Dela Cruz, who sings beautifully as the nightingale placed by the queen in Winifred’s bedroom to lull her to sleep.
Though Toni Del Sorbo cuts an amusing figure as the court jester, nothing in the script prepared me for the moment midway through Act Two when her character, reminiscing with the minstrel (Michael Van Maele) and the wizard (Jeremy Dolinko), remembers the days when her father entertained the court. As Del Sorbo dances gracefully around the stage, the song that she sings, “Very Soft Shoes,” becomes the emotional center of the whole show, and her performance—combining balletic leaps with tremendous breath control—both transcends and complements the surrounding comedy. It is enough to make one wonder how good a songwriting team Rodgers and Barer might have become had they continued their partnership past Mattress.