Theater Review: The Fireside invites you to get comfy: ‘Once Upon A Mattress’

Fireside Dinner Theatre’s production of Once Upon A Mattress runs through Oct. 27. (Photo provided)

By Bill Beard
Theater Critic

Thirteen years ago, in September 2000, The Fireside Theatre in Ft. Atkinson, Wis., did a magnificent production of Once Upon a Mattress. I reviewed that production. Last weekend, in September 2013, I returned to Fireside to see their current new revival of that wonderful show. It was even better this time! When I checked back in my files and read my old review, I realized that everything I wrote then applies even more today. Even some of the actors are back, reprising their roles.

So, why write a new critique? I hereby offer you a copy of that September 2000 article, with only the updated changes in the cast members and a few additional comments on the brilliance of the current production. Oh, yes … and I strongly urge you to GO! GO NOW! SEE THIS SHOW!

Sept. 8, 2000:

Once upon a time, in the pleasant little Kingdom of Wisconsin, in the charming friendly village of Ft. Atkinson, just off the King’s pastoral way I-90, stood the mystical castle named The Fireside, in which the Royal Family Klopcic ruled over their faithful and hardworking people to prepare and produce many magical and magnificent entertainments for their friends and the general populace.

Sound like a fairy tale? Well, it really isn’t. In fact, right now, that magical crew is casting its current spell with a new and enchanting production of the Broadway hit musical, Once Upon a Mattress. The show that originally made Carol Burnett famous, and in turn, the show that was made famous by Burnett [when she instigated and led the cast in successfully picketing the Broadway theater house to extend their running contract], has become one the favorite shows for community and college theater throughout the country.

Basically a whimsical parody of the old fable The Princess and the Pea, a strolling minstrel begins the show by informing us that the old story is “not quite accurate.” He proceeds to tell us about a kingdom ruled by a mute king, Sextimus, a loquacious queen, Agravain, and their mama’s-boy son, Prince Dauntless The Drab. No plot outline is really necessary. Just be assured that it involves some wonderful lines and lyrics and twists and turns, some great mime on the part of the mute king, and truly wonderful music by Mary Rodgers (daughter of Richard Rodgers) ranging from the hilarious farcical first act finale, “I’m In Love With A Girl Named Fred!” to the gorgeous melodic ballad, “Yesterday I Loved You.”

The cast is uniformly excellent. In fact, The Fireside Theatre’s casts are always excellent. This group includes Equity actors from New York, Chicago, California, etc., and other talented actor-singer-dancers selected from all over the country. To mention just a few: Cathy Newman as the one-woman-talkathon Queen Agravain is marvelous (Newman is reprising her role and is even more wonderful!); never overdone, always in control, just the right touch of the Oedipal mother; and her high-point solo in five-four time, “Sensitivity,” perfect. Dan Marrero, seen earlier this season, serves as the Queen’s foil and cohort, The Wizard, and is equally evil, controlled and conniving.

The trio of “plotting do-gooders,” the Minstrel with the mellifluous voice, Ned Donovan, the Jester with the soft shoe showstopper, Darius Fearrington, and the expressive and eloquent King Sextimus the Silent, Michael Hawes, provide a steady sequence of comic capers, which adds to the fast and smooth pace of this whole production (both Hawes and Fearrington are reprising their roles from the 2000 show). Hawes is especially good in the unusual musical number, “Man to Man Talk,” a cleverly conceived “duet for mime and one voice.” Here, the mute King explains the “birds and bees” to the young Prince Dauntless, played this time by the charming and disarming Fireside favorite, Mathew Schwartz. It is certainly the sweetest, most touching and endearing moment of the evening.

The rest of the ensemble, individually and as a group, demonstrate strong talents in all ways, as actors, singers and as dancers. The dancing is superb and the choreography by the brilliant Kate Swan is very stylish. The Prologue ballet is splendidly danced and costumed, a stunning opening.

But this musical’s success is dependent entirely on finding the right “Princess Winnifred the Woebegone,” the princess who has come to be tested as a prospective wife for Dauntless. This show was written for exactly a Carol Burnett; and having known Carol and having performed with her at UCLA in the 1950s, I know that her down-to-earth charm, her loving nature and her wonderful wit and sense of comedy are the qualities that made her Winnifred so wonderful. But this time around, we have a “new take” on Winnifred, from the diminutive dynamo, Leah Morrow. Her Winnifred is her very own, not a copy of Carol’s or anyone else’s. She is so fantastic, one would think the role was originated just for her. She alone is worth the drive and the price to this wonderful theater in the countryside. Her “Fred” is delightful; completely captivating.

Now, for some new comments. When Mattress opened in 1959, the broad farcical style of comedy was in vogue; Carol Burnett’s rubber face and raucus vocal gymnastics were the funniest stuff around. And this show has been done in that style ever since. But with today’s more sophisticated, subtle, underplayed comic style, it behooves actors and directors to “tone it down.”

Artistic Director Ed Flesch has given this production just the right feathery panache, an elegant elan, a raised-eyebrow grace. We sense the actors smiling at themselves and with the audience. Particularly good at this are Ms. Newman as the Queen, Jessica Jaros as Lady Larkin, and the ridiculously handsome David Sajewich as Sir Harry. And it is this same sense of style that makes Ms. Morrow’s Winifred the Woebegone such an adorable misfit.

Two last tributes (in this long list of praises): 1. The costumes in this production are, without a doubt, some of the most gorgeous I’ve ever seen! Designed by Ft. Atkinson’s own Robin Buerger, who has traveled the world with Disney Live and Disney on Ice, they could have come directly from one of Disney’s most expensive shows. The colors, fabrics and styles are perfect. [Perhaps with one exception; that of the possibly last-minute outfits for the backup singer-dancers brought in to support the somewhat vulnerable soft shoe number.] And 2. Congratulations! to the real Sorcerer, the real Merlin, who put this whole magical experience together, the inimitable Ed Flesch, director extraordinaire. What more can I say?

Except GO! This is an all-family show, loved alike by children, teens, young marrieds and senior citizens. It is the answer to “too much TV,” too much loud amplified music, and too much politics as usual. Ft. Atkinson is 45 miles north of the Illinois line, an easy, pleasant drive. And, oh, yes! the food! The best! Mattress runs until Oct. 27. Phone toll-free for reservations and information: 1 (800) 477-9505.

From the Oct. 9-15, 2013, issue

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