Once Upon a Mattress / Ghent Playhouse
IT’S A MUSICAL. “Once Upon a Mattress,” which opened last Friday at the Ghent Playhouse, is a musical about a moat-swimming princess who must compete with a vain, Oedipal queen for the hand of the Prince. It’s based on the well-known “Princess and the Pea” story.
Did I mention that it is a musical?
At Ghent, the castle-interior set spills out along the side walls of the Playhouse, evoking a huge hall and large musical expectations.
Unfortunately, the orchestra (in this case, a puny piano) is located behind the castle walls and sounds as if it lives in the next borough.
Maybe one should be grateful for its remoteness, as it emits so many wrong notes and wrong chords. The excellent score by Mary Rodgers (daughter of the legendary Richard Rodgers) does not deserve abuse. It was composed in the classic mode of ’40s-’50s-’60s musicals and remains fresh and frisky today. The audience would enjoy hearing it. Lyrics (by Marshall Barer) are funny and literate, and the book (by Jay Thompson, Dean Fuller and Barer) has craft, sassiness and solidity.
The orchestra problem robs the songs of their impact and climaxes. It leaves the singers on their own, trying to negotiate Rodgers’ sometimes unpredictable melodies and her many changes of key.
Given that lack of support, cast members cope with admirable determination. Thank goodness for the big voices of Sam Reilly (an adorable Prince Dauntless), Michael Meier (a macho Sir Harry) and Joseph Sicotte (a Jester, whose good voice almost makes up for his soft-shoe deficiencies). They are able to barrel on, defying the accompaniment to divert them.
Other voices are technically challenged. The lovely Charlotte Hays (the pregnant Lady Larken), who gets to sing two beautiful ballad-duets with Meier, is afflicted with “baby sing,” a vocal fad that can’t compete with the musicality and fullness of Meier’s singing. It also infantilizes her character.
Erin Harwood, who is an attractive, feminine embodiment of Princess Fred, has difficulty with her low notes, and Dylan Widjiono, as the Minstrel, has difficulty with his high ones. (Some of Harwood’s and Widjiono’s technical difficulties probably could be solved with key transpositions.)
Though they cannot carry a big musical all by themselves, Playhouse stalwarts Cathy Lee-Visscher (as Queen Aggravain), Reilly, and Meier are terrific. Meier, in particular, gives Sir Harry a wonderful truth and specificity that, in most productions, the character lacks. He even dances better than one would expect of Sir Harry.
Lee-Visscher skillfully dominates the stage in all her scenes, though on Friday she occasionally suffered from what I assume was opening-night “speed-speak.” (In a short time, fast-talking begins to sound like gibberish.)
In recent years, Ghent Playhouse has come to seem very like a professional theater. It is easy to forget that it is actually a community theater. No one there gets paid, and once in a while even the best of the no-pay theaters experiences a dearth of auditioners and volunteers, leading to less-than-ideal casting and production. This “Mattress” may have suffered thus.
The production has lackluster staging and a dull, uneven chorus. Most unforgivably, it does not deliver the music. A musical must deliver the music. The company needs to make that happen or try a different project.