Once Upon a Mattress | 2hrs 15mins. One intermission. | New York City Center | 131 West 55th Street | 212-581-1212
After suffering through Once Upon a One More Time last summer, I concluded that musicals about princesses had become a royal bore; no more singing and dancing tiaras for me, please. And yet Sutton Foster’s full-body comic onslaught as Winnifred the Woebegone in Once Upon a Mattress has restored my fealty to throne. Playing her first stage princess since the ogre-besotted Fiona in 2008’s Shrek, Foster musters every talented inch of her limber frame, rubber face, and iron lungs to generate waves of zany ecstasy in this delightful concert version for City Center Encores!
An urbane riff on Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Princess and the Pea,” Mattress was an early pioneer of the musical fractured fairytale in 1959, decades before composer Mary Rodgers’ lifelong buddy Stephen Sondheim had a go at the Grimms with Into the Woods. Not so coincidentally, the production is helmed by Encores! artistic director Lear de Bessonet, who staged the luminous revival of Woods that transferred to a hot-ticket Broadway run. It’s unclear if the same trajectory awaits Mattress, a lightweight goof with an old-fashioned score that nevertheless has a role any comic diva would die for.
Or dive for: Winnifred throws herself into a moat and swims to the castle in search of her prince, sight unseen. When Foster is pulled up onto the stage, she is a dripping vision in algae: an eel down her dress, an enraged beaver tangled in her bun. The sort of gal folks used to call a tomboy, Winnifred is exuberantly uncultured and has boundary issues: in her intro tune, “Shy,” she bellow the title word, bowling everyone over. It’s right there in her name; half of her is soft and feminine: Winnie. The other half is, well, Fred. She can lift weights, sing like a nightingale and chug gallons of ale. Even with today’s hypersensitivities, the material’s flipping of gender stereotypes comes across as cute, not cringe. Mary Rodgers’ music doesn’t reinvent the swooning, jazz-inflected style she inherited from her father, Richard, but combined with Marshall Barer’s slyly camp lyrics, the score carries a gently subversive charge.
Part of the freshness is due to strategic book rewrites by Amy Sherman-Palladino (The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel), who sharpens the feminist jabs and underscores the vanity and thickness of the men. One of the thickest is Sir Harry (Cheyenne Jackson), a clueless knight whose union with the pregnant Lady Larken (Nikki Renée Daniels) is held up by ridiculous trials devised by the scheming Queen Aggravain (Harriet Harris) to delay marriage for her coddled son, Prince Dauntless (Michael Urie). When Winnifred enters the picture, the wicked monarch devises an impossible test: she plants a pea under 20 downy mattresses and will deny Winnifred’s royal status if she fails to detect the intruding legume.
As she did with Into the Woods, De Bessonet maintains a charming balance between earnestness and ironic sauciness in this no-frills but still attractive staging (economical and colorful sets by David Zinn and mock-medieval frocks by Andrea Hood). Her ensemble (a well-oiled machine after only ten days of rehearsal) is an embarrassment of riches: Daniels and Jackson’s voices blend lusciously on their romantic duets; as a petulant man-boy and embittered dragon lady, respectively, Urie and Harris mug with flamboyant glee; J. Harrison Ghee’s narrating Jester in glitter lipstick and fuscia garb lends a genderfluid vibe; and, as the kindly, mute King, David Patrick Kelly expresses much with his powerful, compact frame.
So Foster isn’t alone up there, but it is hard to notice anyone else when Winnifred is warbling tenderly about “The Swamps of Home” or struggling to find a comfy spot on her mountain of bedding through an increasingly agitated series of contortions. A star since she Charlestoned into Broadway lovers’ hearts some 22 years ago in Thoroughly Modern Millie, Foster is the perfect physical comedian and singer to revivify the role that made Carol Burnett famous. Foster doesn’t need the career boost; if Mattress does extend in a bigger venue, she already has her next gig: baking people into meat pies over at Sweeney Todd.