Once Upon A Mattress
reviewed by Chris Jones in the Chicago Tribune
Oct 22, 2005
On Broadway in 1959, "Once Upon a Mattress" wasn't so much a vehicle for a television comedian named Carol Burnett as a single- seat motorcycle with only one source of ignition.
Forty-six years later, so it goes at the Drury Lane Oakbrook. Ray Frewen's revival is a generally warm, pleasant, melodic and family- friendly affair but hardly a show leaping to distinguish itself from the hoards of other productions of this creaking perennial.
And then, Kristen Freilich's Winnifred -- whose personal center of gravity is somewhere down in the pit of her stomach -- climbs out of that darn moat.
Freilich's performance -- which was enough to bring much of Thursday night's regular audience to its feet -- is exactly what the show needs. She can zing a one-liner as well as she can sing. She's funny and empathetic. She can snort. And most important of all, she's among the most unlikely Princesses in the genetic history of that questionable breed.
As Sarah Jessica Parker found out to her unhappy surprise in the disastrous 1996 Broadway revival, that's a key requirement of this role. Cute blonds and moonlighting ingenues, even those with well- practiced quirks, need not apply for "Shy" Winnifred -- or "Fred," as she prefers to be called. This one's for the can't-be-anything- but-funny. Freilich deserves the gig.
She's not the only yuk of the night. The noble John Reeger, who here plays the Wizard Cardamon, looks like The Cat in the Hat on a bad night. Sean Fortunato, a sometime-dignified Shakespearean making a crust as whiny Prince Dauntless (The Drab), is a sight in purple tights and gold slippers (the things a Chicago actor has to do . . .). And Paula Scrofano, whose stellar comic instincts have been hiding under a bushel basket these last couple of seasons, sports elaborate headgear with huge gilded earmuffs that make her look like Princess Leia transported to some kind of warped west-suburban fairyland.
And the redoubtable Dale Benson spends most of the night as a mute. For longtime fans, that's funny in and of itself.
Given the current girl-craze for Princesses, you can bet your life that anyone now writing a musical adaptation of "The Princess and the Pea" would be talked into keeping royalty in the title (Mattress? How many tickets does that sell?). Still, the show- composed by Mary Rodgers, daughter of Richard -- is never going away. In fact, a new, widely anticipated TV version (with Tracey Ullman as Winnifred) is showing up on ABC this holiday season.
To some degree, the piece was the "Spamalot" of its day (numbers such as "Shy" and "The Swamps of Home" spoof Broadway conventions), but in 1959, no one had the nerve to get rid of the other, more conventional stuff, including an utterly pointless soft-shoe number (here performed by the game Bernie Yvon) that you could play either straight or strictly for laughs.
That inspired Winnifred aside, Frewen's revival plays most of those moments straight down the familiar middle. It means you get smiles and the odd snooze rather than belly laughs or surprises, but all in all, it's probably the safest choice.