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‘Once Upon a Mattress’ Review: Sutton Foster as a Perfectly Goofy Princess



Some casting choices are blindingly obvious. That does not make them lazy; it makes them right.

Such is the case with Sutton Foster as the eccentric Princess Winnifred in the Encores! revival of “Once Upon a Mattress,” which opened Wednesday at City Center. The central role in this broadly goofy musical was exuberantly, indelibly originated by Carol Burnett in 1959.

While Foster has displayed range over the course of her musical-theater career — she’s stepping into Mrs. Lovett’s kitchen in “Sweeney Todd” on Feb. 9, five days after completing this show’s two-week run — many of Foster’s best roles, like Janet Van De Graaff in “The Drowsy Chaperone” and Reno Sweeney in “Anything Goes,” are imprinted with an ebullient, joyful relish in the very act of performance. And Winnifred, described by another character as “a strangely energetic swamp girl,” is an ideal outlet for that sensibility.

“Once Upon a Mattress” is nobody’s idea of a great musical, but it is many people’s idea of a fun one. Based on the fairy tale “The Princess and the Pea,” this vaudevillian lark — which The New York Times described, possibly not in a good way, as “a child’s introduction to Broadway” in a review of a 1964 CBS telecast — is celebrated for helping to kick-start Burnett’s career and for being the composer Mary Rodgers’s sole Broadway hit.

That last clearly represents a loss: Rodgers, paired with the lyricist Marshall Barer, demonstrates startling ease with musical-theater idioms and the late-1950s vernacular. (Winnifred’s “The Swamps of Home” works as both an earnest ballad and a sly spoof of the goopy nostalgic yearnings of some numbers by Richard Rodgers, Mary’s father, and Oscar Hammerstein II.)

Naturally, Foster makes a banquet of the material, from Winnifred’s entrance, covered in leeches, to her bravura numbers, “Shy” and “Happily Ever After.” The first, in which the princess trumpets that “way deep down I’m demure,” is a clear predecessor of “Show Off” from “The Drowsy Chaperone,” in which Janet claimed, “I don’t want to show off no more” while doing exactly that. (The leeches, by the way, and other bits of stage whimsy and effects, are by Skylar Fox.)

Foster’s glee in taking possession of the stage creates an all-encompassing manic energy that both the audience and her scene partners feed off. Prime among them are the archly imperial Harriet Harris (Foster’s co-star in “Thoroughly Modern Millie”) as Queen Aggravain and Michael Urie as her son, the bumbling Prince Dauntless — not the sharpest halberd in the castle, but still smart enough to become endearingly smitten with a shaggy princess who goes by Fred.

This pair are just as obvious for their roles as Foster is, and also exactly right — the three of them chew the scenery with an infectious gusto that reminds us that they are big; it’s the musicals that got small. Harris can wring laughs with just her hands flying about in an Expressionist ballet, while Urie throws himself into idiosyncratic line readings and physical comedy — at one point, he rolls up and down the tiers of David Zinn’s set when he could have easily clambered.

The supporting cast is stuffed to the gills with game talent, including the recent Tony Award winner J. Harrison Ghee as the narrating jester. But let’s single out the presence of Cheyenne Jackson, too rare on our stages, as Sir Harry.

Of course, creating obstacles out of thin air is par for the fairy-tale course, and in order to marry Dauntless, Fred must prove she is worthy of him by spending a night on 20 piled-up mattresses under which Aggravain has had a small pea inserted. In other words, she must pass a “sensitivity test,” an expression whose new meaning Amy Sherman-Palladino, credited here with the concert adaptation, wisely refrains from riffing on.

Sherman-Palladino, creator of “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” has a fruitful association with Foster, who starred in her series “Bunheads,” and she has spruced up this story — by Jay Thompson, Dean Fuller and Barer — while maintaining its structural integrity. A new recurring joke, for example, involves Harry speaking of having a boy while his pregnant beloved, Lady Larken (Nikki Renée Daniels), always adds, “or a daughter.”

Admittedly, Lear deBessonet’s production is not always as crisp and fast as it needs to be. The ensemble remains glaringly slack while Foster exerts herself in “Shy,” for example. Similarly, the orchestra, conducted by the music director, Mary-Mitchell Campbell, and Lorin Latarro’s choreography could use a lot more swinging oomph. But if comedy is tragedy plus time, good comedy is comedy plus time — and Encores! shows get only about 10 days of rehearsal. I have a strong suspicion this production will get better and better, and sadly will have to stop just when it hits its peak.

Once Upon a Mattress
Through Feb. 4 at New York City Center, Manhattan; Running time 2 hours 15 minutes.

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