Purdue University Fort Wayne Department of Theatre’s current production of Once Upon a Mattress is nothing short of delightful.
The play is a 1959 adaptation of an old story with music by Mary Rodgers, lyrics by Marshall Barer, and book by Jay Thompson, Dean Fuller, and Marshall Barer. It is based on the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale, The Princess and the Pea.
Despite the familiarity of the tale of a princess who passes a nearly impossible test to allow her to marry a prince, the story we see unfold on the Williams Theatre stage feels fresh and exciting thanks to an energetic cast and experienced production team led by director Craig A. Humphrey.
I attended the dress rehearsal and clearly any kinks had been worked through before then. The relatively simple set served well. The period costumes did, too.
Since I see all PFW productions and am familiar with student actors cast in recent productions, I was especially pleased to see some new young and talented players in the large cast. The nearly exclusive use of student actors, particularly in a cast of nearly 30, is impressive and allows much opportunity to those studying acting. In this cast, the one non-student actor is Reuben J. Albaugh, an IPFW graduate and member of university staff, who is perfectly cast as King Sextimus the Silent.
First on stage is Chase Lomont, a freshman and recent graduate of Bishop Luers, who sings “Many Moons Ago” as a prologue with flair. It will be interesting to watch him for the next few years.
After the audience has been filled in on the presentation of impossible tests being given to a series of princesses hoping to marry Prince Dauntless the Drab, son of Queen Aggravain and Sextimus, the plot begins, and we see Princess No. 12 fail the final question in a series. Members of the court are, it seems, prohibited from marrying until the Prince has found a suitable wife. This presents a major and immediate problem for Sir Harry and Lady Larken. Queen Aggravain is wicked and, due to an old curse that can only be broken when a mouse devours a hawk, King Sextimus is unable to talk and communicates only through pantomime. Sir Harry returns from a quest to find a suitable princess with Winnifred the Woebegone, who is so eager to meet the prince that she swims the moat. These complications lead to a variety of twists and turns on the road to happily ever after.
The role of Princess Winnifred, or “Fred” as she becomes known, was originated on Broadway by Carol Burnett, who later assumed the role of Aggravain in a TV production with Tracey Ullman as Princess Winnifred. For the current Purdue Fort Wayne staging, Alayna Thornton is very good as she wins over Dauntless and all in the court with her strange skill sets and tales of her life in a swampy kingdom. Thornton makes the role’s goofiness her own.
Jesse Harris, a freshman who made audiences cheer earlier in the season as a mail-carrying Snail in A Year with Frog and Toad, is charming as the love-struck Prince Dauntless. “Adorable” might be the best adjective for his performance.
Senior Megan Buss looks, sounds, and acts like a regal witch as Queen Aggravain. Gabrielle Harter, another senior, glides gracefully across the stage in each of her scenes as a wizard and Aggravain’s accomplice.
Brittney Bressler and Anthony D’Virgilio, last seen as King Creon in Antigone, work well as Lady Larken and Sir Harry, especially in the scene in which they sing the most memorable song in the play, “Yesterday I Loved You.”
The other musical numbers are fun and consistently well performed. The choreography, managed by Gary Lanier, was performed beautifully by the entire cast.
The play was always fun and brought delight to the audience.