Read Me A Story: Once Upon a Mattress on Staten Island

Reviewed by Evan Meeña

There are three levels of Broadway musical: the great ones – Porter and Gershwin, Rodgers & Hart… & Hammerstein to Sondheim, Webber and Wildhorn. There are also the well-known unknowns – forgotten pieces like Redhead, Top Banana, Little Me, Pipe Dream, etc. They are lauded for their invisibility. But there is another set of musicals, competent ones like Applause, Seesaw, 110 in the Shade, and She Loves Me, that, while still played, don’t capture a place in the big leagues. HFPPlayers, one of Staten Island’s most enduring companies, bravely grabbed one of these misunderstood gems and breathed life in to it for a well-done limited run last month.

Once Upon A Mattress, with music by Richard Rodgers’ daughter, Mary, is a clever retelling of The Princess and the Pea. This musical rendering of the famed search throughout the land for one of royal blood to marry the Prince, but yielding an unlikely candidate, bears all the earmarks of the golden age, but its dated and wordy book and maybe-too-sweet score, have kept it from being true royalty.

Director Eric Stein saw this and cleverly injected topical humor into the production. This was quite ingenious as it kept it squarely retro (much like a TV variety show sketch) but the strains of TV theme songs and pop culture music and references gave the exuberant cast fresh performance fodder and the audience new and identifiable reasons to laugh and cheer. The best examples were Tiffany Raile’s Jersey Shore lady-in-waiting at the show’s opening and a singing nightingale in the second act that turned into a riotous routine thanks to Alexandra Stein.

We meet the entire cast in a tableau surely designed to lampoon classical Shakespeare with outrageous medieval costumes and overblown accents. Each character came with his/her own brand of high energy, low humor, and clever original touches, starting with a disdainful Minstrel (Kevin Daly) and poker-faced Jester (Kristin O’Blessin), each showing contempt for the kingdom. In the Minstrel, it gave his narration needed bite and charm and in the case of the Jester, it was an inspired touch creating a jaded jester. The second act showed us that the Jester is also an expert dancer in one of the show’s high-point numbers. Following them were Christine Conway’s faux-British uproarious wicked queen in an equally uproarious Valkyrie costume;  a game show host Wizard played magnificently by Joe Conway, whose presence and vocal quality was a highpoint; a pregnant Damsel in Distress well-sung by the lovely Dayna-Marie Palma and for the knight who impregnated her, local celebrity John Stillwaggon imbued Sir Harry with Spamalot-style slapstick and a wardrobe that included Las Vegas style armor. The audience had almost as much fun watching Sir Harry as Stillwaggon did playing him. Richard Peidra charmed up his prince by adding intelligence to what we are mistakenly lead to believe is a nebbishy Dauntless and Michael Nucciarone’s Buster Keaton face and gestures made the silent King compelling and a joy to watch.

Arriving from the moat with a classic spit-take is the titular Princess for whom the Pea is destined – Princess Fred – played to the hilt by Kathryn Stein. Ms. Stein could’ve taken the easy way out and just joined the cast in its potpourri of double takes and funny noises. Instead she deftly underplayed the role, turning Fred into the straightman and an innocent wanting-to-be-liked Princess. While there was no shortage of shtick from Fred, each was delivered as if she was afraid to be funny. Ironically, this excellent character choice enhanced the humor and gave her stronger likeability. It also brought new depth to her show-stopping numbers, “Shy” and “Happily Ever After.”

Tina Kenny corralled beautiful music out of a very large cast and Tom Wortmann’s set emulated gothic styles well. The production had a choreographing team of Michael Whelan, Christina Lorenz and Kristin O’Blessin making three cheers even more appropriate in this case. Christine Conway’s costumes were simply marvelous, with equal parts story book respect and comic take-off with Prince Harry in tights and work boots; jeans peeping out of togas of the royal court; and glasses left on the ladies-in-waiting like a classic Farside cartoon. Unfortunately, the sound (by Brooklyn Association for the Performing Arts) was inconsistent and proved hindering from time to time. More careful consideration should have been taken by them to ensure accommodating HFPP’s very large theater.

By the varied ages of the cast and the liberal buffet of raffles and giveaways, HFPP is very much a fixture of its surroundings. Here, too, they could have taken the easy way out and provided a pleasant community diversion, but the production’s obviously high standards and attention to detail show us that HFPP is a cut above. That’s why HFPP takes risks with obscure works; that’s why HFPP can woo professionals to its ranks; that’s why HFPP will continue performing happily ever after into its third decade.

Evan Meeña is a former member of EMT: Emerging Musical Theater Co.  in San Diego and writes for Liberal Librettos, a magazine exploring new views on classic musical theater.

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