The Woodford Theater's leading lady, artistic director Beth Kirchner, waxes reminiscent in the program notes about the troupe's latest production.
She recalls the summer of 1996, when the theater had no offices, no staff, no volunteers, no actual theater or rehearsal space, and not even enough interested actors to cast a show. Somehow, Kirchner managed to successfully mount the musical that her board of directors had wanted to see: the medieval musical comedy Once Upon a Mattress.
Fourteen years later, Kirchner is remounting the show with all the luxuries of a fully equipped theater. From a full cabinet of technical gear to the support of a thriving volunteer community, the latest production of Once Upon a Mattress demonstrates just how far the organization has come.
Kirchner directs this reprise, combining a visual feast of medieval-inspired design elements and a high-energy ensemble of performers to create a textbook example of what The Woodford Theater does best: big, fun shows.
Once Upon a Mattress is a sideways goof on Hans Christian Andersen's story The Princess and the Pea and revolves around the plight of poor Prince Dauntless as he tries to land himself a bride. Under the thumb of his domineering, fork-tongued mother, Queen Aggravain (played with appropriately evil relish by Gina Scott-Lynagh), Dauntless can marry only a real princess who meets his mother's approval. Of course, his mother will grant approval based only on a series of increasingly inane tests — the last of which involves the infamous pea under the mattress.
To make matters worse, the queen has forbidden all marriage among anyone in the kingdom until Dauntless finds his princess. With almost no prospects of available women remaining untested, it looks as if no one in the kingdom may ever marry again — until Princess Winnifred splashes onto the scene. Literally, she swims across the castle moat and greets the court with captivating pluck. "Fred," as she likes to be called, is a legitimate princess, but there is nothing delicate about her. A mutual affection peppered with goofy innocence develops between Dauntless and Winnifred, and the remainder of the play centers on whether the pair will marry.
Kirchner's notes mention that while few elements of the 1996 production were used in this production, Kathy Sparrow's original costuming is one of them. It is easy to see why. Supplemented by the work of J. Darrell Maines, who is involved on this show, the wardrobe saturates the stage with deep jewel-toned costumes that pop against the stone-colored castle set's interior. They create depth and movement as each character executes Jenny Fitzpatrick's clever choreography. The scene in which guests at a ball must dance the ridiculous Spanish Panic is a terrific example of performance, costume and dance coming together for a sumptuous and hilarious visual effect.
Damon Farmer and the crew of scenic carpenters deserve considerable praise for not only the design but execution of the castle interior. Exquisitely wrought, the large set works organically with the actors and the choreography as the story's robust humor unfolds. A revolving turret that contains another set piece is a particularly impressive design feature.
Of course, the best technical designs and choreography are useless without a cast to breathe life into the play. This one does so with requisite verve.
Brian Douglas Barker turns in a fabulously pompous but endearing performance as Sir Harry, a fabulously pompous but endearing knight. Adam Fister is refreshingly innocent and eager as Prince Dauntless. The scene in which he learns the birds and the bees from his mute father, King Sextimus (played by Donnie Hay with a kind of Benny Hill mischief), is one of the most amusing numbers in the show.
It is also nice to watch 16-year-old Connor L. Hall evolve on Woodford's stage, this time as the jester. A regular for a few shows now, Hall seems to get more confident and capable with each role.
Finally, there is the not-so-delicate princess Winnifred, played by Jennifer Roth Parr. Parr has a great set of pipes and belts out the show's signature numbers with unabashed moxy. But even more impressive is how Parr inhabits her character with contagious spunk and can-do magic. Her version of the princess is indelicate, imperfect and eager.
With a three-piece orchestra setting the tempo, Once Upon a Mattress is an easily digestible musical, clocking in at just over two hours. Wielding an accomplished set, rich costuming, a hearty cast and signature levity, Kirchner has finally directed the play she only could have dreamed of all those summers ago.