Capsule Stage Reviews: Once Upon a Mattress, Sylvia

Once Upon a Mattress Once Upon a Mattress is the 1959 musical that introduced Carol Burnett to Broadway. Its initial production moved from off-B'way to B'way and ran, in a variety of theaters, for 460 performances. It's a farce, and a spoof of a fairy tale, and is set in a royal court as Prince Dauntless — no Prince Charming — seeks a royal mate. There's much to cheer about in this production, with a bravura performance from Katie Reed as Queen Aggravain, whose character trait is never to stop talking; Reed even makes verbosity fascinating. She has a commanding stage presence and is a skilled professional, carving her way to comic success, despite a one-dimensional script that may take a George Abbot, its legendary original director, to make really work. It's directed here by Geoffrey Geiger, who also plays Prince Dauntless, but Geiger unfortunately permits a slow pace that allows us far too much time to ponder the flimsiness of the goings-on. Prince Dauntless is written as a mama's boy, but Geiger might have let us see more clearly a man chafing under the Queen's dominance. The Burnett role of Princess Winifred ("call me Fred") is well handled by Meeka Opong, who has a clear, lovely voice, good comic timing, considerable charm and an endearing way that makes us root for her. Her late entrance — after swimming the moat — is a welcome breeze on a hot summer's day. The jester (Grace Galloway) and the musician (Janet Sharpley) are excellent, and Bruce Blifford adds some gravitas and a resonant voice to the wizard. The young lovers Sir Harry (Colton Wright) and Lady Larkin (Luci Galloway) look a bit like Prince William and Kate Middleton, and Wright has a British accent to boot. But they lack fire, and Lady Larkin seems tentative and without authority, not aided by weak vocal projection. The sumptuous costumes are colorful and ornate and were — astonishingly — provided by the cast themselves. J.R. Marshall as King Sextimus the Silent has no lines until the denouement but communicates through acting-out charades; when he explains the birds and the bees to his son through pantomime, it seems to take forever. Phyllis Harris provides the musical accompaniment with her usual flair. Outstanding performances overcome a weak script to generate a pleasant evening's entertainment of what has become a classic for community theaters. Through September 18, Pasadena Little Theatre, 4318 Allen Genoa Rd., Pasadena, 713-941-1758. — JJT

Sylvia A.R. Gurney's much-loved comedy Sylvia, about a man in midlife crisis falling in love with a stray dog played by an attractive adult woman, is reborn again at Texas Repertory Theatre, along with all the marital problems that the new relationship engenders. The playwright provides a strong comedic script that tells an amusing story with ample narrative, interesting situations and considerable charm as we see young love — or at least middle-aged puppy love — evolve. Director Steven Fenley has chosen to have Sylvia, the stray, played by the voluptuous and talented Jen Lucy, who provides some witty canine mannerisms — I especially liked her scratching at the door when she wanted to go out. Lucy plays Sylvia with style and verve as a brash, affectionate siren — no wonder the wife, Kate (Karen Schlag), sees her as a threat. Schlag captures the light touch of a wife dealing with a husband who seems to be regressing and adds credence to the early scenes as the domestic crisis grows, but she's less effective as the seams of the marriage dissolve. Alan Hall is wonderful in playing three important roles: a dog-owning Yankee fan, a society matron and an androgynous therapist whose sex cannot be readily determined. The playwright suggests one actor play all parts, and Hall pulls it off with brio — his characterizations contribute strongly to the production's success. The weak link is Bradley Winkler, who portrays the new dog-owner Greg, but seems to be vaguely unhappy, if not downright miserable, through the events. He finds the words, but none of the emotions, none of the enthusiastic joy of a new affair, and none of the welcome relief that his midlife angst has been solved by adopting Sylvia. And we never see his love for Kate; if this is not a happy, loving marriage, why not just take the dog and go? The set is quite handsome as well as functional, and incorporating the attractive abstract New York skyline that serves as backdrop into the front door is witty. The costumes work well, except that restraint seems to have been jettisoned for Sylvia's pink outfit. Some of the stage business — Sylvia running between legs — is inventive and spirited, but the poignant epilogue is marred by incorporating a simultaneous scene change. This captivating drama of midlife crisis can withstand imperfection, and the luminous insights and comedic gifts of the playwright shine through to provide enjoyable and amusing entertainment. Through September 11. Texas Repertory Theatre, 14243 Stuebner Airline Rd., 281-583-7573. — JJT

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