The setup: Once Upon a Mattress is the 1959 musical that introduced Carol Burnett to Broadway. Its initial production moved from off-Broadway to Broadway 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.
The execution: 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 Abbott, its legendary original director, to make it 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 Winnifred ("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 Larken (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.
The verdict: Outstanding performances overcome a weak script to generate a pleasant evening's entertainment of what has become a classic for community theaters.
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Through Sept. 18, Pasadena Little Theatre, 4318 Allen Genoa Rd., Pasadena, 713-941-1758