A book and lyrics every bit as captivating in 2017 as they were when Broadway audiences first discovered them back in 1959. Tunes that make it clear that Richard was not the only Rodgers with a gift for infectious melody. A director/choreographer and cast more than up to the task of bringing said book, music, and lyrics to crowd-pleasing life. Mix all of the above and you’ve got Musical Theatre West’s one-performance-only concert staged reading of Once Upon A Mattress, one of MTW’s Reiner Reading Series’ very best.

Better known under the title Hans Christian Andersen gave it back in the early 19th-century, this tale of a Princess and a Pea takes us back “Many Moons Ago” to a medieval kingdom ruled by a King (Robert Towers) incapable of uttering even a single word and Queen (Tracy Lore) who won’t shut up, a land where courtiers of marriageable age are getting antsy because not a one is allowed to walk down the aisle until the ever virginal Prince Dauntless (Daniel Dawson) takes a bride, something Mommie Dearest seems ill-inclined to see happen anytime soon.

Princess No. 12 is the latest to have struck out at the Queen’s “Who Wants To Be A Millionaire”-style questions—the one that did her in was “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?”—and gotten herself thrown into the moat as a result.

Particularly peeved are a single-and-pregnant Lady Larkin (Madison Claire Parks) and Prince Harry (Caleb Shaw), handsome as all get-out but rather a bit a jerk in wondering why they both should suffer because she “had a moment of weakness.”

It’s precisely when all seems doomed that the less than delicate Princess Winnifred The Woebegone (Jennifer Strattan) emerges from the abovementioned moat, soaked to the skin and not at all shy about informing the populace how “Shy” she is in a in a powerhouse belt of a voice that makes it clear that if there is one thing she is not, it is shy.

Will Princess 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?

Though it’s hard to imagine anyone who doesn’t know that the answers to these questions are “No way,” “Of course they will,” and “She’d better not!” … in Once Upon A Mattress, the fun is in the getting there, and never more so than on the stage of Long Beach’s Beverly O’Neill Theatre.

It helps that legendary Broadway composer Richard Rodgers’ daughter Mary wrote tunes guaranteed to have you heading home humming, that Jay Thompson, Dean Fuller, and Marshall Barer’s delectable book features fairy tale archetypes tweaked just enough to make them seem fresh and new, that Barer’s lyrics are as clever as they get, and perhaps most of all, that a scene-stealing leading character originated by Carol Burnett on Broadway got brought to irrepressible life for one night only by the irresistible Strattan.

Sweet and zany and wild and wacky, Strattan’s Fred is all this … and she can sing … and her physical comedy skills would do Lucy (or the role’s originator) proud, particularly in a Winnifred’s Got Talent display of weight-lifting, wine-guzzling, pro-wrestling prowess in a hilariously staged “Song Of Love.”

Queen Aggravain is Southland musical theater treasure Lore at her most divaliciously fabulous, Towers’s milquetoast of a King speaks delightful volumes and mimes to perfection when attempting to explain the birds and the bees in “Man To Man Talk,” Dawson could not make for a more adorably, cluelessly winning Prince Dauntless, Shaw’s handsome, velvet-piped Harry is a charming “Prince Charming” himself, and fresh from two years starring in The Fantasticks Off-Broadway, Parks’ exquisite Larkin could not be more winsome or gloriously-voiced.

Completing the cast of principals, William Martinez’s Minstrel combines a silky tenor with a heaping helping of charm, Doug Carfrae makes for a wiz of a Wizard, and Roger Castellano’s nimble court Jester shows off lithe and lively footwork in “Very Soft Shoes,” just one example of director/choreographer Daniel Smith’s mastery of putting together a nearly fully-staged production in a mere twenty-three hours, dance numbers and all.

Another Smith showstopper is “Spanish Panic,” danced by the triple-threat-tastic David Leppert, Adrian Mustain, Isabella Olivas, James Olivas, Jenna Lea Rosen, and Landen Starkman as assorted knights and ladies-in-waiting, with special snaps to Rosen’s deliciously ear-piercing “Nightingale” soprano.

Vocal performances could not be better than they are under the expert musical direction of Julie Lamoureux, doing double duty conducting a sixteen-piece orchestra whose members prove as quick studies as the Once Upon A Mattress cast.

Michael Betts and Gabriel Kalomas are Reiner Reading Series producers. Jeffrey Landman is stage manager.

The “forgotten gems” that are the Reiner Reading Series’s stock in trade are often forgotten for a reason, flawed old chestnuts well worth a day’s revival but unlikely ever to inspire a fully-staged run. Once Upon A Mattress is the exception, just about as perfect a “forgotten gem” as any musical theater lover could wish for. Concert staged readings don’t get much better than this.

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Beverly O’Neill Theatre, 300 E. Ocean Blvd., Long Beach.

–Steven Stanley
November 19, 2017

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