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The Da Vinci Players do well with the funny, timeless 'Once Upon a Mattress'

Once Upon a Mattress is remarkable--a second-string musical that somehow holds up much, much better than some other 50-year-old shows. This fractured fairy-tale version of The Princess and the Pea is witty, a little cynical and not the least bit dated. It's getting an enjoyable production on Tucson's far eastside by the Da Vinci Players.

Once Upon a Mattress is best known as a TV musical, thanks to two productions starring Carol Burnett as the princess who must prove herself worthy of marrying a demanding queen's son by being so royally sensitive that she can detect a pea slipped under a pile of 20 mattresses. (There's even a third Burnett production, in which she plays not the princess, but the queen.) But the show started out in a small theater in 1959, so the Da Vinci Players' tight space at Studio Connections has historical precedent. The local version brims with good cheer, solid characterizations and fine vocalizations in the most important roles, of which there are surprisingly many.

Our heroine, Princess Winnifred, doesn't show up until halfway through the first act. This allows time to introduce several other figures in the story. (The book is by Jay Thompson, Dean Fuller and Marshall Barer, with Barer also providing the funny lyrics.) The queen, bearing the perfect name Aggravain, is so possessive of her son, Prince Dauntless, that she sabotages any prospective matches for him by subjecting prospective brides to tests they can't possibly pass. This is a matter of great concern to the members of the royal court, for none of them can wed before the prince.

And that's a big problem for the fetching Lady Larkin, who has been impregnated by a hunky knight, Sir Harry. It's in their best interest to get Dauntless married off so they themselves can tie the knot before Larkin is disgraced, and Harry's political future is compromised.

One of the most interesting things about Once Upon a Mattress is that it's sometimes hard to figure out whose story this really is. Traditionally, Larkin and Harry would be the bright young secondary couple brought in as subsidiary counterpoint to Winnifred and Dauntless. But it's often Larkin and Harry who seem most worthy of our interest, while Winnifred and Dauntless work more like comic relief (particularly since Dauntless' role is so underwritten). Yet Winnifred is a larger-than-life character who dominates her every scene, and Larkin and Harry's happiness does hinge on Winnifred's sensitivity to that pea. Instead of getting one romantic couple and one comic couple, we get a fine melange that keeps the audience interested, no matter who's on stage.

And who is on stage in the current production? The role of Winnifred alternates between Samantha Cormier and Maria Alburtus; it was Alburtus holding forth the night I attended, and she's a hoot--reliably daffy, with a voice as strong as her comedic instincts. Opposite her, remarkably, Brian Hale manages not to come off as milquetoast as Dauntless; he's charming and boyish, but not childish, and not the dud that this character can make of actors.

Then we have Kristina Sloan and Thomas Wilson as Lady Larkin and Sir Harry. They make a cute couple, but more than that, Sloan in particular has the personality, acting chops and vocal ability to make us believe that this is really Larkin's story. Lissa Staples perfectly hits the mark as Queen Aggravain; all at the same time, she's a haughty, melodramatic chatterbox. Todd Luethjohann brings plenty of energy to the mute role of her husband, King Sextimus.

Director Robert Encila and choreographer Brian Levario do a good job of maneuvering the fairly substantial cast and chorus around the small stage, and if not everybody standing in the back is as adept as the leads, well, that's why people start out in the back.

Why isn't Once Upon a Mattress more popular? Probably, it's the score by Mary Rodgers, daughter of Richard. It's perfectly agreeable, but not up to her father's lyric and harmonic best. She herself has said that she had a "pleasant talent but not an incredible talent," and that's evident here. Her songs work very well in context, and they're all enjoyable, but you probably won't be humming her tunes on the way home.

Still, it's fun while it lasts, and the Da Vinci Players do it justice.

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