For musical theater fans in search of something out of the ordinary, Cabrillo Music Theatre has just the show for you, a star-studded revival of the 1959 Broadway hit Once Upon A Mattress and a terrific companion piece to Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Cinderella, which Cabrillo just happens to have staged two summers ago.

 Mattress shares key elements with its sister show. 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 Richard Rodgers’ daughter Mary—who wrote a supremely catchy bunch of tunes you’re guaranteed to leave the theater humming.

Mattress features an absolutely hilarious book by Jay Thompson, Dean Fuller, and Marshall Barer. Add to that Barer’s clever lyrics, a scene-stealing leading character originated by Carol Burnett on Broadway, 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 (Danny Gurwin) 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 (Tracy Lore) who won’t shut up and a lecherous King (David Newcomer) who is mute. Courtiers of marriageable age are getting antsy because not a one is allowed to walk down the aisle until cute and cuddly Prince Dauntless (Scott Reardon) finds a bride, and Princess No. 12 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 (Noelle Marion) and her bun-in-the-oven’s dad, Prince Harry (Isaac James). “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 oh-so extroverted Princess Winnifred The Woebegone (Bets Malone), who informs the populace in a powerhouse belt of a voice that “I’m actually terribly timid and hoooribly 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 at bedtime. Fortunately, in Once Upon A Mattress, the fun is in the getting there.

Three-time Scenie-winning Director Of The Year Israel once again proves himself a master of musical comedy, making this 53-year-old gem feel every bit as fresh and new as a World Premiere. (Israel’s inspired staging of Winnifred’s sleepless night is particularly unforgettable.)

 As for the cast assembled by Cabrillo Music Theatre artistic director Lewis Wilkenfeld, they don’t get any better than Equity guest artists Malone, Lore, and Gurwin, or the two dozen or so triple-threats surrounding and supporting them.

Malone’s Fred may not be as brassy as originator Burnett’s was, but she’s every bit as sensational in her own way, giving the gawky princess a genuine sweetness in addition to the unrestrained wackiness and physical comedy expertise the role requires. Plus she sings like crazy (and I mean this in the most complimentary of ways) and demonstrates beyond a doubt that Winnifred’s Got Talent in a hilariously staged “Song Of Love.” (“With and “F” and an “R” and an “E” and a “D” And an “F-R-E-D” Fred! Yeah!”)

Lore is the third Queen Aggravain I’ve seen in the past three years and the first to nail her as she ought to be nailed, fabulously, divaliciously, and absolutely as expected from one of Southern California’s true queens of musical theatre.

As for the Minstrel, I doubt that anyone’s ever sung the role as gloriously as the utterly charming Gurwin, who looks terrific in tights as well.

Reardon is a cute, sweet, and absolutely winning Prince Dauntless. Newcomer proves himself a master of mime as the verbally challenged Sextimus. Marion and James provide delightful romantic support (and golden pipes to match) as Larkin and Harry. Timothy Stokel’s Jester gets his own centerstage solo with “Very Soft Shoes,” and though the number itself seems tacked on by the authors, Stokel couldn’t sing or dance it better.

Cheryl Baxter choreographs with a combination of just-right quirkiness and pizzazz, with “Spanish Panic” once again proving the musical’s most show-stopping number, particularly as performed by an all-around fabulous cast of young musical theater performers: Sam Ayoub, Jennifer Bainbridge, John Paul Batista, Sydney Blair, Kathryn Burns, Emma Chandler, Courtney Cheatham, Judi Domroy, Emily Goglia, Holly Long, Michael Marchak, Brett McMahon, Alex Mendoza, Courtney Potter, Tanner Richins, Tyler Scheef, Josh Smith, Brandon Stanford, Veronica Stevens, and Matt Wiley. (Goglia doubles as a very funny Princess No. 12.)

Musical director extraordinaire Daniel Thomas conducts the production’s sensational 17-piece onstage orchestra, part of scenic designer Jean-Yves Tessier’s ingenious solution to creating a big-stage, multiple-locale set without breaking the CMT bank. Big hanging banners and movable set pieces help complete a first-rate scenic design, which Tessier lights with his accustomed Technicolor brilliance. (A wall full of portraits of Lore’s Aggravain as she might have been painted by Leonardo da Vinci, Andy Warhol, Edvard Munch, Grant Wood, and C. M. Coolidge is another inspired winner.) Wardrobe supervisor Christine Gibson has made sure that the entire cast looks their 15th Century best in a bevy of vibrantly hued costumes provided by Costume World Theatrical, with matching hair and makeup designs by Mark Travis Hoyer. Jonathan Burke’s sound design is crisp and clear as always.

Char Brister is crew captain, Tim Schroepfer technical director, Allie Roy production stage manager, and Jessica Standifer and Julia Pinhey assistant stage managers.

Like the best Disney and Pixar entertainment, Once Upon A Mattress is family-friendly fun that adults will enjoy every bit as much as their younger audience counterparts. Add to that the incomparable Bets Malone once again stealing scenes with the best of them, and all are guaranteed a fairytaletastic time.

Cabrillo Music Theatre, Kavli Theatre, Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza, 2100 Thousand Oaks Boulevard, Thousand Oaks.

–Steven Stanley
April 20, 2012
Photos: Ed Krieger

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