Teen critic Reed on ‘Once Upon a Mattress’: Slow play, strong show

Eleven Charlotte-area high school students are competing in the new theater criticism category of the Blumey Awards, the Blumenthal Performing Arts’ annual musical theater awards program (read more about that here.) Each student writes three reviews; the following is one entry:

Myers Park’s “Once Upon a Mattress,” one of the more professional Blumey-nominated shows I’ve seen thus far, adapts the Hans Christian Andersen classic “The Princess and the Pea.” It surprised me with its large ensemble dance numbers, Broadway-quality leads and believable casting.

The musical tells the story of a medieval kingdom ruled by Queen Aggravain (Courtney Trent) and mute King Sextimus the Silent (Hunter Ives). The Queen requires that any lady interested in marrying her son must prove her worth by passing various tests. When Princess Winnifred (Mary Lynn Bain) arrives by crossing a moat, she charms the entire kingdom, except for the Queen. Winnifred’s final test is to go to bed atop twenty mattresses, under which the evil Queen places a tiny pea. If Winnifred’s sleep is disrupted by the pea, she passes the test and is deemed enough of a lady to marry Prince Dauntless.

The show, known for its original Broadway casting of Carol Burnett as Winnifred and Sarah Jessica Parker’s later portrayal of the same character, came to life on the Myers Park stage. Bain made an excellent entrance, and Burnett’s influence was evident as she flung herself around the stage and belted out the song with passion.

Despite the number of cast members who considered themselves “dancers” in the program, the show’s dance numbers were often oddly choreographed and rather simple, especially in “Song of Love.” Perhaps this is because the original choreography included the drinking of alcohol, which the high school production decided to omit.

The large stage lent itself to the flouncy, bouncy numbers but was overwhelming sometimes, as the ensemble stretched out various stages of business distracting to the main scene. Although the dancing wasn’t anything special, the dancers were honest about it: They seemed to make fun of themselves and the good-natured silliness of the show. An example of this was the ensemble’s uplifting rendition of “The Spanish Panic,” which ended with Bain as the last woman dancing.

What the show lacked in dancing, it certainly made up for in acting. Bain’s boundless supply of energy, coupled with Kearse’s innocent enthusiasm, made for great chemistry between the lead roles. Conversely, the relationship between Jameson Blount as Sir Harry and Alexandra Rabey as Lady Larken did not hold my interest. Lack of chemistry made their boy-meets-girl, boy-loses-girl subplot boring. Worth noting was Trent’s portrayal of Aggravain, whose bossy treatment of her subjects made her a believable tyrant.

Ives’ expressive countenance and descriptive gestures made playing the King an easy feat. His musical number, “sung” in silence with the talented Jester (Ariel Harris) and Minstrel (Sharon Keenan), could have gone terribly wrong; but Ives made it look effortless.

The tech crew for this production succeeded in setting a magical mood; the castle and colorful costumes helped Bain’s green-washed attire complement her fiery red hair and explosive personality, while Kearse’s tunic (with fur trim reminiscent of Santa Claus) added to his endearing naïveté.

During the show, I didn’t check my phone for the time or count the number of songs left, as I had with other Blumey-nominated shows. Nevertheless, the plot is naturally slow-moving, and by the middle of the second act, I was yawning. It seemed as though the final test, the one the entire show revolves around, would never come. At last it did, but only after several slow and sappy numbers between Blount and Rabey that didn’t help move the story along.

This article is part of the Charlotte Arts Journalism Alliance (a consortium of local media dedicated to writing about the arts) and the Blumenthal Student Critic Program.