Sometimes, bad things happen to good theater companies. And this is the case with Once Upon a Mattress, now at Mercury Summer Stock.
At best, the musical that made Carol Burnett famous is a vehicle for a gifted comic actress, who plays the role of the super-sensitive Princess Winnifred who can feel a pea way down there under a stack of Sealys.
At worst, the music by Mary Rodgers and Marshall Barer is often meandering and vaguely unpleasant. And the book by the troika of Jay Thompson, Dean Fuller and Barer is not much better. There are lots of “filler” scenes and songs that attempt to plump up a simple story that can be told in one sentence: “Princess feels pea, Princess marries prince."
What is required is a tight production with sharp comic actors in key roles. And despite the many minor miracles that this talented company often pulls off, here they struggle to make the play work at all.
Dialogue scenes are often poorly paced, with little character delineation, and the dance numbers struggle for a charm that is often lacking. Part of the problem may be that the talented director, Pierre-Jacques Brault, is playing a major role As Queen Aggravain.
Brault does a competent although not particularly varied job channeling Cruella DeVil in this role, and he cuts a fine form in an off-the-shoulder dress. But his ministrations are clearly needed in his usual (and exclusive) directorial role.
Brian Marshall as the Minstrel adds some punch to the weary script with contemporary references to Tom Cruise's marital difficulties and such. And Dan DiCello has a couple of clever moments as Prince Dauntless, the mama’s boy who falls for Winnifred.
As Winnifred, Kelvette Beacham labors long and hard to wring some antic humor from the part. But she is hampered physically and vocally from making this star turn as memorable as it should be.
In addition, the set design of the show is un-credited, and fortunately so. In this, the second MSS show at Notre Dame College, the set is fixed and mostly unchanging: a collection of ornate, empty picture frames.
Sure, the actors stand behind them now and then to mug for the audience. But this is a sad trend at the new home of MSS, as the set is more reminiscent of a static concert stage rather than a theatrical design. This lack of variety, with no ability to place different scenes in different locations, detracts from the storytelling.
However bad the set design is for the show, it offers a telling metaphor for a production that is below Mercury’s usually high standards. This one is, sadly, is an empty picture frame.
Once Upon a Mattress
Through July 21, produced by Mercury Summer Stock at Notre Dame College, 4545 College Road, South Euclid.