Once Upon a Mattress comes alive in Springboro’s North Park

Photo (l-r):Queen Aggravian, Prince Dauntless, and King Sextimus of Once Upon a Mattress presented by Playhouse South

By Laura Jones

There’s not much like sitting outside on a summer night beneath the stars watching theatre. In fact, when Minstrel (Xander Hildenbrandt), the first character appeared in Once Upon A Mattress, currently presented by Playhouse South in Springboro’s North Park, I couldn’t help but feel time bend back a bit to the days of the Bard. Theatre then was a traveling art form, where people gathered together in outdoor squares or markets to enjoy whatever the players brought along. There was that feeling in North Park last night in the too-soon crisp, fall air when the Minstrel sang, along with a lute, about that by now famous tale of “The Princess and the Pea.”

Once Upon A Mattress is, of course, a musical retelling of that story, a behind-the-scenes” look we might say today, in current parlance. The audience learns straight off the bat that the narrative is not quite what we know it to be. Prince Dauntless (Stephen Gogol) is in a complex relationship of the codependent Oedipal variety with his mother, Queen Aggravain (Mary Nunnery), a woman who just can’t shut up. Her husband, King Sextimus (John Falkenbach) is a mute; we have no trouble understanding why. It’s impossible to get a word in edgewise around his bossy wife. Princess Winnifred, played absolutely engagingly by Lindsey Cardoza, is Dauntless’ one hope at a wife. But, can she pass one of the queen’s impossible tests? Tests that have stumped many a princess that dared cross her path.

If you think of the decade Once Upon A Mattress won its Tony for Best Musical in (1960), you’ll understand that the play has a lot more rollicking sexual undertone than the Hans Christian Anderson tale. The first big ensemble number “An Opening for a Princess” is essentially the ladies and gentlemen in waiting begging for someone, anyone, to apply for the job. Under law, they can’t marry until Dauntless does. But it’s not marriage they’re worried about; it’s all pretext to having a little fun. “No one’s getting any…” they sing, pausing for effect, “younger.” Director Nick Bellmyer has this cast play it very clean, aware there are many G-rated young’uns in the audience. It’s a park after all. But sex, make no mistake about it, is what motivates the King, the ladies and lord of the court, and just about everyone “waiting” in the play.

Before I saw the show, my best friend reminded me that is was the launch pad for Carol Burnett’s career.  As the original Princess Winifred, she was perfectly suited for the zany, madcap antics of the Rodgers and Barer show. There’s something of Burnett in Cardoza’s Winnifred, too, and it’s no understatement to say the show and audience came alive every time Cardoza came on stage. Another standout was Falkenbach as Sextimus. He might not have heard the knowing chuckles emanating from the men in the audience, each time his eyes grew wide in reaction to henpecking, but the laughs were definitely there. Nunnery, as the impossible Queen, set him up for the joke, too. If I were Prince Dauntless, I no doubt would have joined Match.com long ago.

No spoilers, but Director Bellmyer does add some amusing, contemporary updates to the show, such as a break-out number that can best be described as a tribute to every cheesy dance craze ever danced. While I’m rather certain Burnett never got to zombie it up to “Thriller” or jump and shout like Belushi in “Animal House,” this cast sure did, and the audience, myself included, enjoyed every minute.

Will Dauntless ever get married? Will Winifred fall asleep on top of that godforsaken pea? Will you chance to spend an evening beneath the summer stars with Playhouse South’s, and perhaps, a sweetheart of your own? I can’t say, but only suggest that, like the Minstrel, you find out the real story for yourself.

‘Once Upon a Mattress’ takes the stage at 7 p.m., Friday Sunday, Aug. 11-13, at North   ParkPark Amphitheatre, 195 Tamarack Trail in Springboro. Free admission. For more information, please visit PlayhouseSouth.org or call 888.262.3792.

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