Tuesday, July 22, 2008

*Once Upon a Mattress* review

at Coeur d'Alene Summer Theatre through Aug. 2

Roger Welch’s production of *Once Upon a Mattress* is silly enough for the kids and smart enough for the grownups. But that’s such cliché: “suitable for all ages.” How does a middle-aged guy really know if this “Princess and the Pea” musical holds any appeal for children? By consulting someone who’s an expert on the matter. Someone who’s 11.
A critic’s daughter, it turns out, has learned over the years to deliver critical pronouncements of her own. Kylie’s “third favorite character” in *Mattress* — we’ll get to the first two later — was “the king, because he doesn’t say anything.” (Jack Bannon’s King Sextimus the Silent has been put under a spell of muteness. Little girls feel strongly that their parents should be seen but not heard.)
As for her favorite tune from the show, she can only ask, “What were the songs again?” Exactly. Despite composer Mary Rodgers being the daughter of that fellow who wrote a couple of shows with Hammerstein, none of the songs in *Mattress* are especially memorable. (Steven Dahlke’s 16-piece orchestra, however, provides pleasant accompaniment.)
“Shy” held particular appeal, mostly because it’s belted out by Kat Ramsburg as Winnifred, the unlucky 13th candidate to become the prince’s wife. She’s just stumbled into the castle, drenched from taking a most unprincesslike route into the royal presence — “You swam the moat?” the incredulous queen keeps asking — and it soon becomes clear that Ramsburg’s Winnifred is anything but shy.
Instead, she’s full of aggressive self-assertion, and my little girl got the message: A princess, says Kylie, “should have some sensitivity. But I don’t just wanna be this sensitive little delicate twit.”
Princess Winnifred was her favorite character: “I would like to be like her, but any princess wouldn’t want to be proper all the time.” Responding, then, to Ramsburg’s mix of delicacy and self-reliance: That’s my girl.
As the love interest, Craig Heider’s Prince Dauntless came in at No. 2 — “just because he likes her.” Not to press too hard on the feminist angle of Mattress — you’d only find fluff, anyway — but I was liking my daughter’s men-on-the-periphery attitude. She was alert to androgyny, too, asking, “Why are all the guys wearing dresses?” And a male chorus in pastel medieval tunics does take some getting used to. (Credit Judith and Michael McGiveney for conjuring a fairy tale atmosphere with their costumes, backdrops and set pieces.) With its swaggering Princess Fred and flouncing, misnamed Prince Dauntless, *Once Upon a Mattress* wants to explore the edges of gender roles.

Maybe I should take my daughter to more musicals like *Mattress,* in which choruses sing and dance and cooperate, and scheming people get their comeuppance, and a woman can be self-assertive, and a man can get in touch with his sensitive side. Corny? Maybe. But going to musicals, when I was a kid, was part of a lot of people’s education.
At one point, Prince Dauntless — whose Mommy has kept him from marriage all these years — stamps his feet upon being told to go to bed and declares, “I’m 36 years old, and I can stay up late if I want.” *Once Upon a Mattress* is about making the right decisions — always a good reminder for adults — but it’s also about growing up. And that’s good for our kids.

This is a partial version. For the complete review (with two photos), please pick up a copy of *The Inlander* on Thursday, July 24.

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