Mary Rodgers — daughter of Richard and mother of the brilliant Adam Guettel (Floyd Collins) — once described her gifts in a typically self-effacing manner: "I had a pleasant talent but not an incredible talent... I was not my father or my son. And you have to abandon all kinds of things." We should all have such a pleasant talent.
Rodgers, known to millions of young American readers as the author of Freaky Friday, which once made a good Disney movie (in 1977) worked on a mere handful of musicals: The MAD Show (which included the Jobim parody "The Boy from…" with lyrics by one Estaban Rio Nida, aka Stephen Sondheim), Hot Spell, Working — and her one certified hit, Once Upon a Mattress, in 1959. The springboard that unleashed the brilliance, and launched the career, of Carol Burnett, Mattress is an utterly charming parody of the Anderson fairy tale, with a score any musical theatre composer would have been proud to own. Although the current Cary Players production at the Cary Arts Center, Cary NC, is less than ideal, the basic allure of the show remains, happily, indestructible.
Rodgers' approach to the material was gently jazzy, with self-consciously "show bizzy" touches that add comic grace notes. It's a sore full of Rodgers and Hart-like charm songs (or, if you prefer to separate Rodgers from her paternity, Wodehouse and Kern): Soft-shoes, fox-tots, jazzy waltzes, even a mock hoedown and an ersatz blues lament. And Marshall Barer's playful lyrics match Rodgers' ebullient style in every particular. (Odd aside: while Barer and the musical's librettists, Dean Fuller and Jay Thompson, are featured prominently on the playbill, Rodgers is not.)
The Cary Players' Mattress has been beautifully designed and costumed, is often a real pleasure to look at and listen to, and contains several agreeable performances. But it doesn't quite hang together; there is a certain flaccidity in the staging, and some of the central performances don't jell. Nancy Rich has done an admirable job of directing the piece, giving due attention to the small things. But the pacing is just slightly off throughout. Jay Dolan's Minstrel is not quite up to the score's higher notes, while Jon Karnofsky, as the stalwart Sir Harry, is off-pitch more often than on.
A much larger problem is Kelsey Tucker's approach to Princess Winnifred, the Burnett role and the boisterous center of the show. Tucker is seldom less than winning, but an essential brassiness is missing. (Many observers had the same complaint about Sarah Jessica Parker in the recent Broadway revival.) Granted that the thin line between voluble and strident, Princess "Fred" is either raucous, or she's nothing. Her big numbers demand a knowing looseness — an "oomph," for lack of a better word — to pull off successfully. Tucker has a lovely tone, but it's largely brassless, which lowers the comic temperature of items like the ironic "Shy" and the burlesque-inspired "Happily Ever After." Fred's vigorous mock-paean to her home kingdom, "The Swamps of Home," is better suited to Tucker's voice, but generally she pushes a bit too hard vocally, and misses the effect.
Derek Taylor's ingenuous Prince Dauntless is winningly boyish, nearly to the point of childishness but never over the line. Del Flack makes a likeable King Sextimus, pantomiming with brio. Carly Jones' Nightingale of Samarkand is more than melodious, and Amber Ivie Hayles has a couple of very funny moments as Lady Rowena.
Best of all is the Queen Agravain of Alison Lawrence, smirking in quiet triumph over the success of her machinations, her vocal characterization a heady combination of Eleanor Audley (the Stepmother in Disney's Cinderella and Maleficent of Sleeping Beauty) and the two Maggies, Hamilton and Dumont. Her modulation and timing are things of beauty. The Queen claims she's had the vapors; this Agravain gives them.
Coty Cockrell's musical direction can scarcely be faulted. Ditto Nancy Rich's sprightly and often amusing choreography, and the effective lighting of Michael Lefler, which includes a dumb-show sequence gorgeously silhouetted in fuchsia. Jon Dietz's effective set designs are an asset as well, especially his soft, earth-toned castle backdrop, while David Serxner's fanciful costume designs are among the most charming I've ever seen: bright pastels which never call attention to themselves but accentuate character, mood and place with exceptional grace. By way of example, his creations for the Chorus consist of a single exact match, the rest either contrasting or gently complimentary.
Curiously, in an age of nearly universal clamor, belting seems to have become a lost art. Melismas can be had by the barrelful, alas, but the Carol Burnetts of the world appear to be giving way with alarming speed.
Come back, Ethel Merman: All is forgiven!
This show continues through 10/8. For details, see the sidebar.