‘Once Upon A Mattress’ at Encore Stage & Studio

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Encore Stage & Studio presents Once Upon A Mattress, a hilarious musical adaptation of the famous fable involving a princess, a pea, and a stack of mattresses. With Music by Mary Rogers, Lyrics by Marshall Barber, and Book by Jay Thompson, Dean Fuller, and Marshall Barer, this production provides the perfect material for an enthusiastic  young cast to work with, and a great night of entertainment for the whole family!

Technical Director and Set Designer/Builder Kristen Jepperson makes the stage fit for royalty with painted stone castle walls framed by a row of colorful flags, and a throne seated center stage. Lighting Designer and Master Technician Gary Hauptman  does a fine job for the most part, though I feel that the nighttime scenes were a bit too dark for comfort. Costume and Make-up Designer Debra Leonard chose a medieval style, including knights, jesters, and noble gowns. The costumes were not only pleasing, but creative; two pointed party hats and sheer veil were cleverly used to re-create a popular style of headdress worn by medieval royalty. The technical staff for this production is a large one, including Artistic Director Susan Alison Keady, Director Marji Jepperson, and Music Director Matthew Heap, among a long list of many others. As the cast itself is a large one (and made up mostly of young actors), this production truly took a village. The successful result shows proof of solid teamwork and direction.

The cast of Encore Stage & Studio’s 'Once Upon A Mattress' (2014) perform “Shy.”  Photo by Larry McClemons.
The cast of Encore Stage & Studio’s ‘Once Upon A Mattress’ (2014) perform “Shy.” Photo by Larry McClemons.

We all know the story of The Princess and the Pea…or do we? Wandering minstrel Padraig Clancy opens the musical with a rendition of the original version, which insists that a real princess is so delicate that a single pea hidden beneath her downy bed would ruin her sleep. He is accompanied by a talent young quartet of ballet dancers; Joy Gardiner, Usman Ishaq, Ana McMenamin, and Lowry Palmer, who express the story through graceful choreography by Kelsey Meiklejohn. “This story is the prettiest,” he says, “but not quite accurate.” The “truth” that you are about to experience is completely unexpected…and that much better for it.

The sweet but childlike Prince Dauntless (Sean Gilley) is eager to get married…and so are all the other young couples in the kingdom. They are forbidden to take their vows before the prince does, and they sing about their frustration and unhappiness in the song “We Have An Opening for A Princess.” However, Queen Aggravain (Meghan Mack) turns away each and every worthy candidate after they fail her (completely unreasonable) “Royalty Tests.” No girl is dainty enough, poised enough, or graceful enough. It seems that the queen is insistent upon her son staying single, and the kingdom is getting desperate.

Princess Winnifred (Carla Astudillo). Photo by Larry McCkemons.
Princess Winnifred (Carla Astudillo). Photo by Larry McCkemons.

Enter Princess Winnifred (Carla Astudillo). And what an entrance it is! She is loud. She is strong. She is basically Melissa McCarthy in any of her movies (Bridemaids, Identity Thief, Tammy…take your pick). While she is about as graceful as a bull in a china shop, Winnifred is friendly and fun, and wins the kingdom (and audience) over with a song about her nonexistent “delicate nature”(stage dive included). Everyone loves Winnifred…everyone except the Queen, who will stop at nothing to make sure this particular princess fails her royalty test. Will Winnifred be able to outsmart the Queen?

This show is energetic, fun, and filled with some great song-and-dance numbers. My favorite was the “Spanish Panic,” a frenzied dance meant to wear out Princess Winnifred, who remained dancing long after everyone else fainted from exhaustion. Prince Dauntless’ funny song “I’m in Love with A Girl Named Fred” was also a big crowd pleaser. For the most part the writing is fantastic, though I do feel that there were some definite slow parts and songs/sub-plots/characters that were not really necessary at all to the plot. However, the fun long outweighs the drab, and the eager young cast works together beautifully.

There is some real talent brewing in this cast, particularly standing out in Carla Astudillo as the lively Winnifred, Sean Hackes as King Sextimus The Silent (his pantomimes are hilarious and extremely well-done) and Meghan Mack as the long-suffering Queen Aggravain. Bossy, impossible to please, and ever on the point of boiling over (quite literally– she shakes as if about to implode), Mack is tremendously entertaining in this role. Keep an eye out for this girl– she is going places! I particularly love children’s productions casted with young actors, as I see in them (and so will your kids, I bet) inspiration and drive.  Let your kids see their peers actively pursuing their dreams.

Once Upon A Mattress is not your average fairy tale production, which tends to have a selective audience (*ahem* girls *ahem*).  Bold, funny, and greatly entertaining, I think everyone in your family will love it, including you!

Running Time: Approximately two hours, including one 15-minute intermission.

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Once Upon A Mattress plays through July 27, 2014 at Encore Stage & Studio performing at The Thomas Jefferson Community Theatre– 125 South Glebe Road, in Arlington, VA. For tickets, call (703) 548-1154, or purchase them online.