Putting the right director in charge can make a less than stellar show sparkle like the 4th of July. Opening night of Grapevine’s Runway Theatre production of Once Upon A Mattress lit up like a first-class fireworks display, thanks to the creative vision of clever director Andy Baldwin and his versatile cast of comics with engaging singing voices and supple dance moves. What could have been a pleasant but ho-hum production delighted its audience with non-stop infectious fun and a surprisingly fresh interpretation.
There are far worse musicals, guaranteed. Once Upon a Mattress’ original production opened on May 11, 1959 at the off-Broadway Phoenix Theatre and ran on Broadway for a respectable run of 460 performances. It received a Tony Award nomination for Best Musical as well as a Best Leading Actress nomination for stage and screen legend Carol Burnett in her Broadway debut. The Sound of Music and Fiorello! tied for Best Musical in 1960; Burnett lost out to Mary Martin for Best Actress in The Sound of Music, along with Ethel Merman performing in Gypsy. It’s just that neither book nor score of Once Upon a Mattress are all that interesting.
In Runway Theatre’s production, running through August 1, director Andy Baldwin turns predictable on its head by re-setting the show in the 1920’s with a vaudevillian flair. Yes, there is still a medieval Princess Winnifred and a Hans Christian Anderson story romance. But now the whole show zings along with camp, stylized hilarity and recognizable nods to early film stars as comic characters. Upstage, 1920’s styled film projection adds wry commentary on the stage action behind the show’s keyboard accompanist/music director Michael Plantz visibly plying the keys. It’s a fast-flying ensemble effort with individually notable performances. Shane Strawbridge, Darius Anthony Robinson and Dave Harper make shtick-sensational Marx Brothers-like hijinks heroes as a trio of mischievous bumpkins. Individually, each has a captivating moment. Strawbridge kicks off the show in enchanting form, emulating Charlie Chaplin as the Minstrel, crooning the expositional ballad “Many Moons Ago”. In Act II Robinson, playing the Jester, adds a warm-hearted hint of Ben Vereen panache during his dance number ”Very Soft Shoes”. Harper as the mute King Sextimus sends the audience into gales of laughter with his ‘silent’ duet with Prince Dauntless: “Man to Man Talk”. Recent high school graduate Cameron A. Mumford gives a fearlessly funny performance as Prince Dauntless and holds his own with the bubbly energy and charismatic stage persona of Shelbie Mac as lead princess Winnifred. Tyler Cochran adds Edward Gorey-like black humor to his menacing but bumbling evil Wizard and gives a wincingly memorable lullaby rendition as the squawking “Nightingale of Samarkand”. Secondary romantic leads Michael P. Rausch (Sir Harry) and Rachel Joy Robertson (Lady Larken) possess excellent singing voices and comic flair and add well-rounded symmetry to the madcap zany-ness. Christine Chambers makes a perfectly despicable (and shrill) villainess as the ample-bosomed Queen Aggravain in pretentious, glittery attire. The ensemble of six, dancing, singing or pestering the leads like a bevy of manic fireflies, never lets up and keeps the show tripping furiously along, even when some of the show’s less inspired song numbers sag. Director Baldwin knows just how far to push and pull his cast to inspire the most laughter from an audience. He never lets camp get too muggy or mayhem become utter chaos… and adds a few unexpected farcical touches of his own to the show I’ll leave undisclosed to surprise. Ready to laugh until your mouth corners ache? Here ‘tis.
The classic late 1950’s musical romp Once Upon A Mattress runs through August 1, 2010, at Runway Theatre located at 215 N. Dooley Street in Grapevine, For tickets call 817-488-4842 or visit http://www.runwaytheatre.com