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Princess and the Pea
The Civic Theater’s Once Upon A Mattress offers a fractured fairy tale to music
By Michael Summers
Fort Wayne Reader
A domineering queen, a shady advisor, a weak king, a repressed prince, a free-spirited damsel and young love thwarted… All elements that could either make for gut-wrenching Shakespearean tragedy or gut-busting farce.
It’s a big dose of the latter audiences will see on stage in the Civic Theater’s production of the musical comedy Once Upon A Mattress, which begins its three-weekend run on Friday, January 18. Based upon the Hans Christian Anderson fairy tale The Princess and the Pea, the classic musical tells the story of the imperious Queen Aggravain who has forbade anyone in her kingdom to marry until she finds a suitable bride for her son, Prince Dauntless the Drab.
It sounds all sounds pretty simple, doesn’t it? Find a bride for Prince Dauntless (played by Tony Winebrenner), and everyone is happy, right?
If only it were that easy. The aptly-named Queen Aggravane doesn’t really want her precious son to get married, so she and her minion, the conniving Wizard (played by William Andrews) concoct a series of bizarre and impossible tests allegedly to determine the suitability of the princess hopefuls. “Aggravane is the one that causes all the problems in the story,” says Julia Goodall, who plays the queen.
Well, maybe she’s just looking out for her son? “Oh no, she’s a trouble-maker, no ‘ifs,’ ‘ands’ or ‘buts’ about it,” Goodall says. This is the second time on the Civic stage for Goodall after a role in A Christmas Carol a few years ago. “Queen Aggravain never shuts up,” she says. “It’s a lot of fun playing a character like this.”
When the queen dismisses princess candidate #12, the court’s first knight Sir Harry decides to take matters into his own hands and find Dauntless a bride himself. Sir Harry has personal motivations; his beloved Lady Larken is with child, and it just wouldn’t do for the court’s superstar to have a baby out of wedlock.
Not only does Prince Dauntless have a domineering mother, but he’s also the kind of guy who needs all the help he can get. “He’s a four-year-old trapped in a man’s body,” Tony Winebrenner says of Prince Dauntless. “He’s completely clueless to anything that an adult should know. He’s a momma’s boy; he loves his mama and his mama loves him.”
Dauntless’ father, King Sextimus, isn’t much help either. He’s been stricken mute by a curse that, according to prophecy, can only be lifted when “the mouse devours the hawk.” “I have to do everything in charades,” says Scott Frey, who plays the silent Sextimus. One scene features him desperately flapping his arms in front of Dauntless while trying to balance on one leg. “Sextimus is imitating a stork,” explains Frey. “I’m trying to have a man-to-man talk with my son, and I was trying to tell him that a stork will bring a baby.”
Sir Harris scours the kingdom for a princess candidate and returns with Winnifred (Megan Meyer), or “Fred” for short. Meyer, who was also in the Civic’s production of Annie, says “Fred” isn’t very ladylike and no one knows quite what to make of her. “She’s this really kooky girl who is nothing like anyone in the kingdom has ever seen,” Meyer says. “She’s so excited to meet Dauntless and become the princess that she can’t wait for the drawbridge to come down so she swims across the moat.”
Nevertheless, Dauntless is smitten, and the characters embark on a campaign to help Winnifred pass the queen’s test — she places a single pea under 20 mattresses, and if the pea disturbs Winnifred’s sleep, she will be good enough to marry the princess.
Once Upon A Mattress is full of great songs and has been an audience favorite since its debut in 1959. Carol Burnett made her debut with the original cast (she played Winnifred), and later reprised the role for a 1972 T.V. adaptation. Becky Niccum, who is directing the Civic’s production, says it was that version that first made her fall in love with the musical. “I’ve always wanted to play Winnifred. Unfortunately, I don’t have the voice, so I’m thrilled to be directing it,” she laughs.
Musical comedy is a lot harder to pull off than it looks. For Once Upon A Mattress, Niccum says there were certain scenes that required some tricky choreography and blocking, but thanks to the cast, they were able to figure it out pretty fast. “This cast has been absolutely fabulous to work with,” she says. “We had a short time to put it totally together once we did music and dance, and they were just ready to go.”
Niccum calls Once Upon A Mattress a light piece of fluff — and that’s a good thing. “There’s nothing serious about it,” she says. “Just come, enjoy yourself, enjoy the music… there’s no hidden messages.”
The Fort Wayne Civic Theatre presents Once Upon A Mattress
Friday and Saturday, January 18 and 19 at 8 pm; Sunday January 20 at 2 pm
Friday and Saturday, January 25 and 26 at 8 pm; Sunday January 20 at 2 pm
Friday and Saturday February 1 and 2 at 8 pm; Sunday February 3 at 2 pm.
Arts United Center
303 E. Main Street
Tickets: $24 adults; $16 ages 23 and under; $20 seniors and Sunday matinees; $22 member guests
Box Office: (260) 424.5220 or online: www.fwcivic.org