How do you modernize and enliven a 1959 musical based on a fairy tale? Landree Fleming, director of Theo Ubique’s wildly fun and entertaining production of the already-campy Once Upon a Mattress, has found an answer: take the traditional musical and give it a most wonderfully nontraditional look. And by doing so, she manages to give a fairy tale musical a subtle but powerfully affirmative message.
Fleming starts with casting: several members of this talented cast are either non-binary or trans or both, including actors playing key roles. The role of Prince Dauntless, the effete young man whose mother concocts ridiculous “tests” to keep him under her apron strings, is played perfectly by August Forman. The brilliant Parker Guidry plays Lady Larkin, at the center of the play’s most significant subplot: she is pregnant, and the Queen’s standing order is that no one in the kingdom may get married until Dauntless does…while she actively blocks that possibility. And the ensemble contains several non-binary actors as well, including J. Alan as a hilarious Wizard.
All of this might not be significant at all, though, if Fleming and costume designer Uriel Gómez had not opted to highlight the fluidity with his costuming, which Fleming says were influenced by, among other things, the glam rock of the 70s that pushed gender boundaries and which she feels look medieval enough to work in a show that takes place in the 15th Century. It is an idea that Fleming says is intrinsic to the play itself: “When I first read Mattress I saw the conversation about gender in it – what does society decide (are) ‘ideally feminine’ and ‘ideally masculine’ traits, who gets to determine that, and WHY do they get to determine it?”
Even beyond the obviously playful gender elements, Fleming’s casting reveals a lot. Sonia Goldberg’s Princess Winnifred (who calls herself “Fred” in an open nod to the play’s unusual gender dynamics) “doesn’t behave like a princess ‘should’ – but she has all these beautiful qualities that can and should be viewed as feminine and upheld as valuable by society in a woman- strength, boldness, playfulness, speaking your mind.” And the Poet, an expanded narrative role, is played by a woman (Jasmine Lacy Young) in an effort to tie these two characters together visually. And within all of this, the role of Sir Harry—Lady Larkin’s love interest—is played with caricatured ultramasculine fervor by Michael Metcalf, sounding like one of the Princes from Into the Woods…an absurdity that shines brightly against this backdrop of gender fluidity.
As the royal couple with an inverted power dynamic, Anne Sheridan Smith and Andrew Fortman do their best also to bring down the gender binary. Smith’s Queen Aggravain is note-perfect, a bully who is absolutely used to getting her own way, lording over her mute husband, King Sextimus, who appears to have abdicated responsibility when he was felled by the curse that stripped him of his voice. Septimus enjoys nothing more than running around the palace in a clownish trio with the Jester and the Poet or miming silly things to the Ladies in Waiting. Fortman is adept at the kind of physical comedy that his role makes necessary, and it’s a joy to watch him perform. Meanwhile, Smith has great fun playing the selfishly malevolent Aggravain, straining to coat everything she does with a veneer of maternal instinct that everyone in the kingdom sees through.
Goldberg and Forman, for their part, give the audience plenty to root for. From the first time we see Fred, sauntering into the palace draped in swamp weeds after having swum the moat—the drawbridge was too slow for her—Goldberg’s confidence and genuineness, not to mention her tremendous voice, has won us over. More importantly, she also quickly wins over Forman’s childlike Dauntless. Forman has a tough job here: they have to remain “innocent”—King Daddy has not even given Dauntless the birds and bees talk—while falling in love and gaining emotional strength throughout the show, and they do it all perfectly.
Fleming’s vision is certainly helped by Jenna Schoppe’s vibrant choreography, which ranges from romantic to frantic to a lovely softshoe number for Michael M. Ashford’s Jester. Music Director Jeremy Ramey’s small band has the sound of one that is much larger, and he and Fleming have every actor in top voice as well, bringing vocal power, humor, affection, and longing to such songs as “Shy,” “Happily Ever After,” “In a Little While,” and “Song of Love” (the “I’m in love with a girl named Fred” song), while they have lots of fun with Marshall Barer’s lyrics and Mary Rodgers’ music. (Barer shares book credit with Jay Thompson and Dean Fuller as well.) Every one of the myriad pieces here, including Piper Kirchhofer’s lights and Rick Sims’ sound, fit together like parts of a vast puzzle. This is a play that everyone in the family can enjoy.
Once Upon a Mattress runs through May 1 at Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre.