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Once Upon a Mattress

Sutton Foster (Photo: Joan Marcus)

Once Upon a Mattress

By Deirdre Donovan

Arriving just in time to dispel the mid-winter blahs, a concert staging of Mary Rodgers and Marshall Barer s Once Upon a Mattress tucked in at New York City Center as part of its Encores! series. Directed by Lear Debessonet, and starring the ever-amazing Sutton Foster as the misfit Princess, this show was a delightful way to invest two hours of one s life.

For any newbies, Once Upon a Mattress is a Borscht Belt retelling of Hans Christian Andersen s fairy tale The Princess and the Pea. It is about the vain and icy Queen Aggravain who attempts to thwart all the princesses who want to marry her son. When her son becomes smitten with Princess Winnifred the Woebegone, a big, feisty, loudmouth princess, the Queen has a plan: she will give Winnifred a test to see if she is a genuine princess by planting a pea under a mattress, or rather, twenty mattresses. If Winnifred finds that the pea keeps her awake, then she is a genuine princess indeed.

Rodgers music is spellbinding. From the moment we hear the exhilarating overture (superbly orchestrated by the Encores! orchestra), it s evident that the score is flush with over-the-top ballads and showbiz panache.

J. Harrison Ghee (Some Like it Hot!), as Jester, impishly sang the Prologue Many Moons Ago, whetting the audience s appetite for the adventures ahead. After crooning these opening lyrics, however, he playfully added in plain speech:

You know there are many versions of this story, I sing them all. That s my job. I m a Jester. I entertain. A little song, a little dance, a little seltzer down my pants. But this version is my favorite. It s the most romantic.

Few would argue with his opinion, as one charming song after another swelled into the air. But the real showstopper in Act 1 was Shy, which Foster and the Knights deliciously hammed up, with Foster stretching out the final vowel of shy to eternity.

Act 2 brought more musical merriment. Michael Urie, as Prince Dauntless, and David Patrick Kelly, as King Sextimus the Silent, teamed up for the duet Man to Man Talk. As the mute King Sextimus explained through mime the particulars of sex and starting a family, Prince Dauntless countered his dumb show by posing questions about procreation. While the whole number was a rib-tickler, the moment that brought down the house was when Kelly s King Sextimus removed the crown from his head and put it under his robe, simulating the rotund shape of a very pregnant woman.

A person in a crown and a person in a garment

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Michael Urie, David Patrick Kelly (Photo: Joan Marcus)

In a more straightforward song, Emmy and Grammy-nominated actor-singer Cheyenne Jackson, as Sir Harry, and the renowned Nikki Ren e Daniels, as Lady Larken, harmonized well in their nostalgic number, Yesterday I Loved You.

Of course, the success of any mounting of Mattress much depends on the casting of Princess Winnifred. And, happily, Debessonet cast Foster in this plum role. In fact, from the moment Foster entered halfway through Act 1, a bit bedraggled from swimming the moat, the show took off into the stratosphere. No question who was the star of this Mattress.

That s not to say that the rest of the cast didn t shine. They did. In fact, Urie, as the coming-of-age Prince Dauntless, was just right as the son who s been under his mother s thumb since his royal birth. Kelly was terrific as King Sextimus the Silent (He s unable to speak due to an unfortunate curse), as was Harriet Harris, playing his terror-of-a-wife Queen Aggravain. Jackson and Daniels were pitch-perfect as Sir Harry and Lady Larken, whose incipient parenthood creates a lot of drama in the world of this musical. And a special shout out to Francis Jue who played his Wizard with delicious villainy.

The stage business that Debessonet cooked up was more than memorable. Take the moment when the moat-swimming Princess Winnifred pulled a couple of leeches off her upper back and threw them into the audience, eliciting squeals from the sensitive-souled viewers. And that wasn t all. A beat later, Foster pulled a furry creature out of her matted hair and sent it airborne in the direction of the stage s wings.

The creative team didn t disappoint. Kudos to Lorin Latarro for her lively choreography that was peppered throughout the show. Costume designer Andrea Hood whipped up some colorful outfits for the entire cast, with some being more eye-popping than others. Case in point: Foster s periwinkle-blue jumpsuit in Act 1 suggested adventure with a capital A; the flamboyant robes for Harris Queen Aggravain chimed with her vanity; a blue-checkered vest and tights, replete with spurred boots, were an ideal fit for Jackson s romantic macho knight Sir Harry.

Nikki Ren e Daniels, Cheyenne Jackson (Photo: Joan Marcus)

Sixty-five years have passed since Mary Rodgers and Marshall Barer created the beloved classic Mattress, skyrocketing Carol Burnett to fame. Foster now puts her own signature on the part of Princess Winnifred and it couldn t be a fresher or more winning one.

Indeed, this latest offering from the Encores! series was a slam dunk for its acting, singing, and direction. What s more, it was a show that the entire family could enjoy. While it breezed in and out of New York City Center far too fast, perhaps it will resurface on a New York stage in the future for more theatergoers to savor.

Once Upon a Mattress


At New York City Center, 131 W. 55 St., midtown Manhattan.

For more information on upcoming shows, visit

What s Next: Encores! concert version of Jelly s Last Jam. February 21 March 3, 2024.