Once Upon a Mattress: A Play Review

By Anne C. Thompson


Photo courtesy of Denise Frawley

I often begin my play reviews by saying that I had had high expectations, and over the course of my review I come to the conclusion that I was not disappointed. This time, however, I will not use that now-hackneyed form. When I go to see a Footlighters production, I now do not so much expect it to be good as know it will be. The spring musical, Once Upon A Mattress—directed by Alan Haehnel and advised by Erin Piro—was no exception.

This enchanting fractured fairy tale is based on Hans Christian Andersen’s The Princess and the Pea. It retains the basic plot: a princess is unable to sleep on a high stack of mattresses because a pea has been placed under them. After relating the classic version at the start, the minstrel (Kendra Comstock) proceeds to tell us, “There are many versions of this story; I sing them all. The one I have just shared is the prettiest, but it is not quite accurate. I happen to know the true story of ‘The Princess and the Pea,’ for the very good reason that I was there.” It is here, when the classic fairy tale and the modern musical part company, that the hilarity ensues.

All is not well in the kingdom. The mute King Sextimus (whose taciturn condition in no way inhibits his skirt chasing) has been cursed by a witch. Queen Aggravain (Olivia Zerphy), a bossy queen whose voice as high as her temper is strung, unfortunately can talk, and has proclaimed that nobody shall marry until her eager—if immature—son, Prince Dauntless (Kevin Dwyer), has found a suitable wife. To complicate matters further, the Queen’s expectations are insurmountably high, and of the twelve princesses that have attempted to win the hand of the Prince, none have passed the test. Naturally, the Ladies and Knights of the kingdom are becoming desperate.

This isn’t entirely altruistic, as their own potential marital bliss is heavily dependent on the Prince’s. Two lovers who are particularly invested in the princess search are gentle Lady Larken (Kelli Minelli) and Lancelot-esque Sir Harry (Jack Higgins), who are in the family way. Spurred on by his lady’s bidding, Sir Harry hurries off on a quest for the right princess. The one he returns with, Princess Winnifred “Fred” the Woebegone (Taylor Frawley), is a feisty, outspoken, and endearing swamp princess. She makes makes a splashy first impression by swimming the moat. From then on she proceeds to charm the Prince and court—and horrify the Queen—with her rambunctious antics.

Pretty soon the Prince is head over heels, and the Queen is devising an impossible task for Winnifred with the aid of the Wizard (Nick Graver), her egotistical henchman. They devise a sensitivity test, which involves placing a pea under twenty mattresses: only a true princess would be sensitive to so inoffensive an intrusion.


That night, to ensure the success of her twisted plot the queen holds a rowdy ball, forces the Wizard’s sleeping drought on her and even lends the Princess the melodious Nightingale of Samarkand Grace Patton to carry her off to dreamland. To the Queen’s utter dismay Winnifred is unable to sleep, and spends the listless night counting sheep. Furious that so unsuitable a princess has passed her test the queen orders Winnifred to leave, but Prince Dauntless finally confronts his mother and insists that Winnifred is the princess he loves and will marry. This prophesied moment where “the mouse devoured the hawk” results in the King regaining his speech and the Queen’s loss of hers. With his voice back again, the king defies the bossy Queen and sends her hop skipping off the stage. Perhaps the best moment of all comes at the very end when the energetic jester Conor O’Leary reveals that the real reason Winnifred was unable to sleep was that he placed a great deal of livestock and other detritus under the mattress…And they all live happily ever after.


The cast clearly put a great deal of time and effort into their various roles. Their dedication certainly paid off: each actor seemed to embody his or her interpretation entirely, from his or her tone of voice to his or her physicality. From the lively acrobatics to the signature mini-steps of the court Ladies-in-Waiting, there was dramatic interpretation galore. A particularly amusing moment was King Sextimus’ silent but spirited pantomiming of “the birds and the bees” to a rather dense but enthusiastic Prince Dauntless. Then Prince Dauntless’ and co.’s raucous singing of “Song of Love” to Fred was a charming sort of feminist fête. Of all the impressive choreography, the passionate bouts of Spanish Panic were quite a bit of fun to watch.

Of course, the members of the crew must also be recognized for their contributions. Unfortunately, the less you notice them, the better they have done. So I applaud their subtle and efficient execution of the musical. The stark lighting and vivid color block set provided the perfect fanciful backdrop for song and dance.

With its talented cast, wittily caricatured costumes, whimsical set, heady choreography, and beautiful live music, Once Upon A Mattress was a joyful celebration of life, love, and song.

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