Once Upon A Mattress is a popular choice for high school musicals and community theaters, but I can’t recall a professional production here in L.A., so the Lyric’s totally entertaining revival of this 1959 Broadway gem comes as particularly welcome news, especially in these gloomy economic times.

Mattress shares a few things with its sister show, Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Cinderella. Both debuted in the late 1950s, both are based on classic fairy tales (Mattress comes from The Princess And The Pea), both are about royal offspring, and both feature a Rodgers score, though in the case of Once Upon A Mattress, the Rodgers in question is the legendary Broadway composer’s daughter Mary—who wrote a supremely catchy bunch of tunes you’re guaranteed to leave the theater humming.

What (for me at least) makes Mattress the better and more entertaining of the two shows is its absolutely hilarious book by Jay Thompson, Dean Fuller, and Marshall Barer. Like the best of the more recent Disney animated films (Beauty And The Beast, Toy Story, and Finding Nemo, to name just three), Mattress’s book is as much a delight for adults as for kids, far more so than the comparatively stodgy Cinderella. Add to that Barer’s clever lyrics, a scene-stealing leading character (Carol Burnett originated the role), and a supporting cast of fairy tale archetypes tweaked just enough to make them memorable, and you’ve got a family musical which even adults can love.

In “Many Moons Ago,” the Minstrel (velvet-voiced Jason Coosner) recounts the tale we’ve heard time and time again (“‘I will test her thus,’ the old queen said, ‘I’ll put twenty downy mattresses upon her bed. And beneath those twenty mattresses I’ll place one tiny pea. If that pea disturbs her slumber, then a true princess is she.’”) Once Upon A Mattress then proceeds to tell us “the real story.”

Mattress’s medieval kingdom is ruled by a Queen who won’t shut up (Dorrie Braun letting go and having one heck of a good time with the role) and a mute but lecherous King (a laugh-getting Thomas Colby walking like someone’s stuck a scepter up his royal posterior). Courtiers of marriageable age are getting antsy because not a one is allowed to walk down the aisle until cute and cuddly Prince Dauntless (an all-around terrific Robert Tafoya) finds a bride, and candidate number twelve has just struck out. (In “Who Wants To Be A Millionaire” fashion, she lost on the final question “What’s the middle name of the daughter-in-law of the best friend of the blacksmith who forged the sword that killed the dragon killed by St. George?”, ending up with only a rubber chicken as a consolation prize before being thrown into the moat.)

Particularly peeved are a pregnant Lady Larkin and her bun-in-the-oven’s dad, Prince Harry (the photogenic duo of Penelope Yates and Reid Lee, both returning in fine vocal form from the recent Little Women). “Why should we both suffer because YOU had a moment of weakness,” wonders Harry in a way not likely to win friends amongst medieval women’s-libbers.

Fortunately, though, when all seems doomed, who should climb out of the moat but the brash and brassy Princess Winnifred The Woebegone (cute Christina Ferraro, a terrific physical comedienne and sensational singer) who informs the populace in a voice matching Merman’s in volume that “I’m actually terribly timid and HOOOORIBLY shy!” (She’s obviously not.)

Will Winnifred (aka Fred) fail Queen Aggravain’s test of “Sensitivity” by falling fast asleep atop twenty mattresses and a single tiny pea? Will Winnifred and Dauntless live happily ever after or will the Princess end up back in the moat she climbed out of? Will Lady Larkin give birth to a royal bastard?

Anyone not familiar with the answers to these questions must have fallen asleep too quickly when told the bedtime tale. Fortunately, in Once Upon A Mattress, the fun is in the getting there.

The remaining characters are as delightfully off-center as the leads, and they include the Jester (a particularly delightful Tracy McBurnett), the Wizard (Carrie Poppy, with the quirky, sexy charm of Alicia Silverstone), and a quartet of royal courtiers (Amber Fonseca, Hesley Harps, Samuel Isaacs, and Dan McLaughlin, all lending fine support, with McLaughlin in particular scoring laughs as the not terribly studly Sir Studley.)

Terra Taylor’s imaginative direction makes this Mattress-in-the-round especially winning, beginning with “pre-show entertainment” which introduces us to the cast of characters. Princess #12’s questioning is straight out of a TV quiz show (“Name three kings.” “May I take the third king first?”). A hilarious game of “Charades” shows off Colby’s physical comedy gifts, and Tafoya’s goofiness makes for a great contrast with Reid’s stalwartness since the tall blond handsome duo could pass as brothers. A charming McBurnett shines in a pizzazzy “Very Soft Shoes,” and Colby and Tafoya make the King’s “birds and the bees” lesson (“Man To Man Talk”) not merely funny but surprisingly touching as well.

Music director/keyboardist Lauren Buck does great work here as she did in Little Women. Tim Thorn’s choreography is another production standout, most notably “Spanish Panic” (“The basic step is: Flip your skirt, open close right, right, right. It’s like the magic step only forwards.”)—designed to make Winnifred dance until she drops, and a show-stopping “Song Of Love.” (“I’m in love with a girl named Fred. She wrestles like a Greek. You will clap your hands in wonder at her fabulous technique. With an F and an R and an E and a D and a F-R-E-D Fred YEAH!”)

The Lyric’s stage has been reconfigured for this production to create (in the director’s words) an “in-the-round … playground ripe with possibility.” Thorn has designed an appropriately fairy-talesque set and Miguel J. Barragan’s costumes are likewise a fairy-tale lover’s treat. Jennifer Anne Skinner’s lighting and Rick Gaarde’s sound design are top notch as well.

Following wow-worthy productions of Into The Woods and Little Women, the Lyric Theatre is batting three for three with Once Upon A Mattress. For music, comedy, and a bit of magic, it’s the perfect family show this spring.

Lyric Theatre, 520 N. La Brea Ave., Los Angeles.

–Steven Stanley
May 17, 2009

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