Theater review: 'Once Upon a Mattress' impressively performed

Published: Wednesday, June 26 2013 4:54 p.m. MDT

Taylor Smith stars as Sir Harry and Jamie Urry as Lady Larken in the Salt Lake Shakespeare and University of Utah Department of Theatres production of "Once Upon a Mattress."

Alex Weisman, ©2013 Ice Wolf Photography

“ONCE UPON A MATTRESS,” Babcock Theatre on University of Utah campus, through July 7, $8-$12, 801-581-7100 or kingtix.com

All froth and frolic with few intellectual demands, “Once Upon a Mattress” is a nice opportunity to lollygag away a warm summer evening.

The musical has the impromptu zany style lightly reminiscent of the shtick found at the famed Borscht Belt summer hotels. Indeed, at one of these resorts, Camp Tamiment in New York’s Pocono Mountains, “Once Upon a Mattress” was created and first produced. Composer Mary Rodgers, daughter of legendary Richard Rodgers, later expanded the show for its Broadway opening in 1959.

The Salt Lake Shakespeare and the University of Utah Department of Theatre’s summer-season-opening production is a screwball ode to the tropes of musical comedy. The emphasis is not only on the show’s humor, but its splendid songs, under skilled guidance of director David Schmidt and musical director Alex Marshall. “Once Upon a Mattress” exhibits the university’s strength as a powerhouse to nurture and develop vocal talent for the stage, and its primary cast of U. students impressively performs.

Jessa Brock in the role of Princess Winnifred, who spends a sleepless night atop 20 downy mattresses with a fateful single pea beneath to prove she is a “true princess,” is bursting with plucky charm. Playing a tomboy raised in a neighboring swamp, Brock is refreshingly unaware of her innocent brashness, and makes the princess-to-be immediately likable. She has large solos, each brightly performed, and “Shy,” the show’s breakout musical theater hit, is a highlight of the production.

Each of the characters is a blithely overblown caricature. Taylor Smith knows this best: He’s a delight as Sir Harry, who has a vested interest in the marriage of Winnifred to the kingdom’s momma-loving Prince Dauntless. Smith has a Dudley Do-Right smile, which he endearingly flashes with aplomb to the audience, and his eyes nearly twinkle. He also has the strongest and most beautiful voice, evident in duets with Lady Larken (appealingly played by Jamie Urry), “In a Little While” and “Yesterday I Loved You.”

Shalee Mortensen Schmidt as Queen Aggravain and Brian Manternach as King Sextimus also give vivid portrayals. Manternach is ingenious in the comic “Man to Man Talk,” a pantomimed discussion of the birds and the bees by the king who has been struck dumb. Schmidt comically plays the coddling terror of a matriarch, who plots to keep her infantilized son from marrying by devising “a test that looks fair, sounds fair seems fair, but isn’t fair” from Hans Christian Andersen’s original story.

Notice should also be given to Gregory M. Neff when he sings and soft-shoe dances about “playing the palace” with the song “Very Soft Shoes.”

Thanks to artistic director Hugh Hanson and executive producer Gage Williams, this production is Salt Lake Shakespeare’s first musical in a welcomed new tradition, with “Two Gentlemen of Verona” following July 17-28. “Once Upon a Mattress” is not a behemoth musical but is a little charm suitable for families. Most enjoyed by young princesses, the production has enough musical pizzazz and showmanship to broadly entertain.

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