Once Upon a Mattress, book by Jay Thompson, Dean Fuller and Marshall Barer, lyrics by Marshall Barer, music by Mary Rodgers. Directed by Teri Conte. Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman.
". . .and I have a lot to say!"
Don Dolan, Cathy Lee-Visscher, Sam Reilly, Erin Harwood as the much trumpeted royal family
It was a curious day. I watched Donald John Trump sworn in as the 45th President of the United States and later watched aspects of this man played out on the Ghent Playhouse stage in their production of Mary Rodgers classic musical fairy tale, "Once Upon a Mattress." Donald John was literally severed from himself and presented as both Aggravaine and Winnefred, the two women who struggle for power in the musical's story. Queen Aggravaine is a vain, pompous, inconsiderate and overbearing woman who wields her power in a selfish and self-serving manner preventing her son, the eventual heir to the throne, from even making a match and marrying himself into maturity. Winnefred is the outsider Princess (comes from wealth and the "swamp")
who swims the moat to enter the world where she would like to push aside the standard -bearer from the social world she cannot compete with and become the next Queen in, and for, a day. It's the two sides of our new President made too, too solid flesh. . .with songs.
"I come from the land of the foggy, foggy dew where walking through the meadow is a little like walking through glue," Winnefred sings. She has long been stuck in a world that held out little hope for advancement for a bonafide princess. Discovered by knight errant Sir Harry and brought back to court to woo Prince Dauntless she faces down a court full of desperate ladies and knights, unable to marry or even have sex until the Prince is wed, and most specifically takes down the hierarchy of government.
In the venue known as the Ghent Playhouse the resident company presented one of its least professional productions with this show. In a program note the director, Teri Conte, notes that this was the first full-length show she ever directed, just ten years ago at Chatham High School. It felt as though she had kept her prompt book from 2007 and just reinstated it in this "community theatre" edition. In fact she harps on the community theater - read amateur theatre - aspect which for the Ghent Playhouse is rather a betrayal of the high standards they usually set for themselves. This was the show that made Carol Burnett a star back in 1959 and established Jane White as a perfect villain, Joe Bona as a subtle, comic hero and Jack Gilford as a perfect mime. Most of those qualities are missing in this local edition, sadly.
Don Dolan is not a mime. He uses the same gestures over and over to express many different things. When he speaks (see my title) he adds a vigorous forcefulness to the proceedings that the show has lacked for two hours. Cathy Lee-Visscher is absolute perfection as the Queen who will protect her inalienable rights against all contenders. She looks and acts the absolute monarch. She sings a difficult song with ease and delight as she manipulates her aide, the wizard, into doing her bidding.
Sam Reilly, whose set design is brilliant, plays her son Dauntless with an ingenue/juvenile charm that makes him an endearing foil for both the women in his life. He sings with a dreamy quality which works for the character. Erin Harwood gets the comedy in her character and sometimes sings her songs with grace, but she is no Burnett which spoils her opening number and loses the comedy in the show's final moments.
As the young romantic couple, Harry and Larkin, we are given two uneven performers. Charlotte Hays looks lovely and often sings perfectly as Lady Larkin whose commitment to her lover is everything. She acts up a storm and storms her way through the second half, sometimes losing her musical pitches. Her swain, Sir Harry, is played by Michael Meier who seemingly can do no wrong as a performer even when his character makes nothing but mistakes. His voice is rich and powerful and his stage appearance easily matches his voice.
Among the many other characters there are several stand-outs. Joseph Sicotte as the Jester sings beautifully and he is sometimes really funny. Maeve Nielsen as Princess #12 is properly haughty and superior. Dylan Widjiono as the Minstrel pushes his voice into falsetto but carries off his role with masculine propriety. Arielle Lant takes evident pleasure in being on stage in character and she conveys all the good feelings that good, really top-notch, community theater should impart.
Although there is a person at the piano, Justine Rodriguez, there is no oomph to the music at all and half the time it seemed that this was an a capella performance which is too bad for the score to this show is melodic and memorable if you can hear it. Joanne Maurer's costumes are superb and for an opening night performance there were relatively few technical problems that a bit of glue and hem-stitching wouldn't cure. Max Lagonia's lighting was quite good.
It's the juxtaposion of Aggravaine, Winnefred and Donald J that brings focus into this production and if you like a Jekyll and Hyde musical that pushes the envelope of contemporary politics this should be a treat for you. Personally, I love this show so much I could watch the Chipmunks do it, so this was a generous step up from that weird scenario. But be aware that the director aimed low, at community theater, and she made her mark.
Once Upon a Mattress plays at the Ghent Playhouse, 6 Town Hall Place, Ghent, NY through February 5. For information and tickets call 1-800-838-3006 or go on line at ghentplayhouse.org.