With the Disney invasion of Broadway in full swing, there couldn’t be a better time to revive “Once Upon a Mattress,” the 1959 retelling of “The Princess and the Pea.”
“Mattress” shows you can retell fairy tales with wit and sophistication and, more important, human feeling, none of which is evident in, say, “Beauty and the Beast.”
The revival has a great cast, visual elegance and sparkle, but, to quote its opening chorus, “We have an opening for a princess, a genuine, certified princess.”
Alas, it needs a princess. Doubtless the show was revived as a vehicle for Sarah Jessica Parker whom I found adorable and funny as the dog in A. R. Gurney’s “Sylvia.”
She is an endearing ingenue, but she is not a natural clown. This is apparent the second she enters.
In the Mary Rodgers-Marshall Barer telling of the story, the princess is an extroverted vulgarian, who arrives at the palace by swimming the moat. Her first entrance should draw a huge laugh. Parker enters so far upstage you can’t even see her well.
If her gown were waterlogged and she had to wring it out (rather than just pantomime it), you might laugh. Here, you don’t.
Parker has a sweet singing voice but she’s not a belter. Songs like “Shy” or “Happily Ever After” have to be “sold” not just sung.
The entire show leads up to the sequence in which the princess has trouble falling asleep. This is where you need farcical instincts and a body whose simplest movement should connect with your funny bone. Here, all you’re aware of is the effort. Parker is likeable, which is important, but it’s only the beginning.
The supporting cast is great. Mary Lou Rosato is absolutely brilliant as the domineering queen, and Heath Lamberts is adorable as her mute, long-suffering husband.
As the 36-year-old virgin prince whose hand the princess is trying to win, David Aaron Baker could not be more wide-eyed, innocent or perfect. Lewis Cleale and Jane Krakowski are marvelous as courtiers in love.
The Disney people should be forced to study Jane Greenwood’s wondrously imaginative, funny costumes and John Lee Beatty’s wittily enchanting sets. Liza Gennaro’s choreography is both humorous and graceful.
This is one of those “Catch-22” situations. The revival probably wouldn’t have happened without Parker, but with her it doesn’t work as well as it could. It’s a pity, because the show seems as fresh, inventive and funny as ever.
There's no denying that, on at least one level, the job description fits. A princess, as you are told (any number of times) in the misbegotten revival of ''Once Upon a Mattress,'' which opened last night at the Broadhurst Theater, should be ''a delicate thing, delicate and dainty as a dragonfly's wing.''
Sarah Jessica Parker, the immensely appealing young actress who stars in the fairy-tale musical, does look perilously fragile up there on the stage. Thin to the point of wispiness, pale nearly to the point of translucence, she gives off a vulnerability that begs for sanctuary. And though her smile is expansive enough to embrace a stadium crowd, she also projects an airy wistfulness. She is indeed a damsel worth saving from distress.
So is this perfect casting or what? Well, before you start celebrating a happy marriage of an actress and a role, remember that Winnifred, Princess of Farfelot, is the part that made Carol Burnett a star in 1959.
Ms. Burnett is many things, but delicate is not one of them. And the central joke of this show is that Winnifred is a leather-lunged, leaping contradiction of every gossamer-spun cliche of a storybook princess. There was never any question that she had the stamina to out wrestle, outdrink and outdance any man on the stage. When Ms. Burnett belted out, ''I'm shy,'' in her opening number, it had distinct glimmers of the Tarzan yell that would become her television signature.
Ms. Parker has a voice with brassy highlights (she played the title role in ''Annie,'' after all, as a little girl), but it is just as likely to sound plaintive and feathery. Certainly, she has an antic, rambunctious side. (She was heavenly as an eager-to-please canine in A. R. Gurney's ''Sylvia.'') But there's a subtle, melting quality at her core that this shtick-driven show can't accommodate.
Efforts have been made to tailor Winnifred to Ms. Parker's particular talents (including some new orchestration of her numbers to allow her to sing in blues and scat styles). But the role asks her to stretch in ways that could snap hamstrings. She is game and hard-working as the medieval hillbilly royal who claims a mother-coddled prince. But when Winnifred nods off after a memorably sleepless night at the play's end, the exhaustion doesn't seem feigned.
Actually, the whole production, one of the more eagerly anticipated of the season, feels weary: an unhappy surprise, given the pedigree of its first-rate director, Gerald Gutierrez (''The Heiress,'' ''A Delicate Balance'') and star. Rumors of clashes among the show's creative team were loud and plentiful during rehearsals and previews. And a sense of uneasy resignation emanates from the stage, as if no one was very happy to be there.
Many people have warm memories of ''Mattress.'' Under the legendary George Abbott's direction, it became the little-show-that-could of 1959, moving (despite mixed reviews) from a small downtown theater to a healthy run on Broadway. With its likably tuneful score by Mary Rodgers and jokey, whimsy-laden sketch of a book by Marshall Barer (also the show's lyricist), Jay Thompson and Dean Fuller, it has also become a favorite of stock and amateur theaters.
In the full-dress, sherbet-colored production it has been given here, however, its charms seem distressingly wan. A willfully kooky spin on ''The Princess and the Pea,'' the Hans Christian Andersen tale, it follows a satiric formula that reached its apotheosis in the ''Fractured Fairy Tales'' of the ''Rocky and Bullwinkle'' cartoon shows of the 1960's.
The story: The 36-year-old Prince Dauntless (David Aaron Baker) is still a bachelor, thanks to his Oedipal nightmare of a mother, Queen Aggravain (Mary Lou Rosato), who insists that any aspiring bride pass an impossible royalty-testing exam. Twelve candidates have already failed when the intrepid, ingenuous Winnifred shows up, having swum the moat to reach the castle. What follows is a Freudian battle of wills, delivered with an all-too-knowing wink.
The entire book of the show, in fact, has an elbow-in-the ribs feeling of coy concupiscence that speaks directly of the era in which it was written. (It's the same sensibility that made the Doris Day-Rock Hudson movies such hits.) Much is made of the sexually frustrated knights and ladies-in-waiting who can't be married until their Prince is. (The ladies, by the way, are already pregnant. Tee-hee!)
The henpecked King Sextimus (pun intended), played by Heath Lamberts, is a randy, Harpo Marx-ish skirt chaser who also happens to be mute. And the show's most embarrassing moment has Sextimus explaining the facts of life to his son in pantomime.
Mind you, the successful revival of ''A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum'' also sports an old-fashioned leer, but at least it is unabashed about it. ''Mattress'' is both leering and precious, a combination with the approximate appeal of a chocolate-covered oyster.
Add to this the fact that the show is as padded as the 20-layer bed that figures in Winnifred's climactic test. The second act is basically an exercise in marking time, with numbers (like the dance scene in which the court jester, portrayed by David Hibbard, remembers the days when his dad ''played the palace'') that have little reason to be. Putting them over requires an exuberance that is very seldom in evidence here.
Surprisingly, Mr. Gutierrez seems to have no clearly defined point of view toward the material. He's toned down the more brazen vaudeville aspects of the show, but without them, there's not much left. Liza Gennaro's rote choreography (which includes a disco routine that smacks of desperation) suggests old television variety shows.
With the exception of the shrill Ms. Rosato, in a thankless, gargoylish part, and Louis Cleale, as a doltish knight, the cast seems to be thinking of other things, like Christmas shopping. The cartoonish sets and costumes in lurid pastels, by John Lee Beatty and Jane Greenwood, respectively, at least have the distinction of being conspicuous.
Ms. Rodgers's score has a melodic period twinkle, but it comes to seem awfully repetitive. She and Mr. Barer have, however, provided three memorably loony solos for Winnifred that could be show-stoppers if performed with the necessary gutsy shamelessness.
Ms. Parker, unfortunately, doesn't have the special kind of chutzpah required to sell those songs. She does her best to carry the show on her back, bless her heart, but it's a slender back for such a clunky show. She deserves a long, restoring rest on the most comfortable mattress imaginable.
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."