Off-Broadway Review: ONCE UPON A MATTRESS (Encores! at New York City Center)

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by Gregory Fletcher on January 27, 2024

in Theater-New York


When Encores! announced Once Upon a Mattress as part of their season’s concert series reviving American musicals, my first thought: Does this nutty chestnut need reviving? After all, there have been numerous in-your-neighborhood productions (for decades, Mattress was one of the most-produced musicals in high schools, colleges, and community theaters right next to Oklahoma!), plus two filmed versions starring Carol Burnett — first recreating her role of Winnifred from the original 1959 Broadway production and later in 2005 playing the queen. And don’t forget — no, wait, maybe we should forget — the 1996 Broadway revival starring Sarah Jessica Parker. And what about my own star turn as a chorus member at Cal State Northridge in 1979? Has a Broadway musical ever been revived as many times as this one?

Michael Urie and cast
Sutton Foster and cast

Well, any doubts were vanquished at City Center last night. There’s a new Mattress in town and this one is a King-sized pressure-relieving high-quality, thick-layered romp, maintaining its comedic shape for 135 minutes. Beginning with conductor Mary-Mitchell Campbell setting the sparkling overture in motion, my heart warmed with each new song, beautifully played by the Encores! Orchestra upstage. And from there on, I was hooked, finding the revival to be refreshing, reinvigorating, and rousing. But it only runs through next weekend, and you never know if Encores! will transfer to Broadway, as they did with Into the Woods, Parade, Chicago, and more. (Anyone else still waiting for their revival of The Most Happy Fella with Laura Benanti to hit the Great White Way?)

Sutton Foster
J. Harrison Ghee and cast

This light-as-a-feather-pillow fairy tale sendup — with music by Mary Rodgers (daughter of composer Richard and mother of composer Adam Guettel) and lyrics by Marshall Barer and book by Mr. Barer, Jay Thompson, and Dean Fuller — is based on Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Princess and the Pea” (1835) about a young woman whose royal ancestry is established by a test of sensitivity. And what better time than 2024 to get a lovely story about good triumphing over evil? The biggest dragonslayers of the night were the central performance by Sutton Foster (soon to take over as Mrs. Lovett in Broadway’s Sweeney Todd), an adaptation by Amy Sherman-Palladino (creator of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel) — editing the book to focus on its comic strengths — and the mind-boggling, consummate casting by The Telsey Office.

Harriet Harris and Francis Jue
Harriet Harris, Michael Urie, Cheyenne Jackson, Nikki Renée Daniels

Queen Aggravain (comic genius Harriet Harris) will not allow her son, Dauntless (a master wit in physical, vocal, silent, and facial expressiveness, Michael Urie, who just left Spamalot last week) — a nerdy prince who is fully under the thumb of mom — to marry anyone other than a true princess of royal blood. Test after test to every young woman in the Kingdom as well as surrounding Kingdoms bring failure. Of course, they are all rigged as in reality she doesn’t want to share her son. The Queen, who has made it clear that no one in the kingdom can marry until Dauntless does, creates impossible tests with the help of her nefarious Wizard (showman Francis Jue) for candidates to pass. King Sextimus (a wonderful David Patrick Kelly, but resembles more of a grandfather than a dad) isn’t much help as he has had a spell placed on him making him mute.

David Patrick Kelly, Nikki Renée Daniels, Daniels, J. Harrison Ghee
Michael Urie and David Patrick Kelly

A less-than-refined Princess Winnifred the Woebegone from the Swamps (Foster, in a fresh, original, superb take) swims the moat to find her prince. Is she a true princess? She was brought to the castle by Sir Harry (Cheyenne Jackson, who’s as handsome both physically and vocally as the day he originated a role in the 2005 Off-Broadway Altar Boyz) who is under pressure to marry his love, Lady Larken (Nikki Renée Daniels, whose vocal beauty matches her physical loveliness) who is with child. J. Harrison Ghee‘s non-binary Jester enchants us with suave moves, voice, and glittery lips and eyes.

Sutton Foster and cast
 Sutton Foster on Michael Urie with cast

With the shortened rehearsal period and the limited budget, we get only suggested design elements, except for the costumes by Andrea Hood whose brightly colored costumes matched the attractiveness and star power of the cast, even contributing to some sight gags. The other collaborators were certainly competent but with limited results: David Zinn, scenic design; Amith Chandrashaker, light design; Kai Harada, sound design; J. Jared Janas, hair & wig design; Skylar Fox, physical comedy and effects; Lorin Latarro, choreographer; and Lear Debessonet, director.

Sutton Foster
J. Harrison Ghee and the cast

I must gush a little more over Ms. Foster. She finds more comedy than all the past Winnifreds put together. Her spirit is so infectious, her creativity so original, and her heart so true, you can’t help but root for her, cheer her on, and love her. And, as we all know, she dances too. While no one has yet to match Burnett’s belt on “Shy”, in all other departments, Sutton Foster is gold.

Michael Urie and Sutton Foster with cast
The Cast

As the audience left the theater, there was a buzz in the electrified air. With Rodgers having passed in 2014, Barer in 1998, Thompson in 2014 and Fuller in 2017, it seems almost shameful that the creators couldn’t have seen this truly pleasing, delightful version.

Francis Jue

The ensemble includes Shavey Brown, DeMarius R. Copes, Kaleigh CroninCicily Daniels, Ben DavisTa’Nika GibsonGaelen GillilandJaquezPaul Kreppel, Morgan MarcellAbby MatsusakaAdam RobertsRyan Worsing, and Richard Riaz Yoder.

photos by Joan Marcus

Once Upon a Mattress
New York City Center, 131 West 55th Street
ends on February 4, 2024
for tickets, call 212.581.1212 or visit NY City Center

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