Of Pea I Sing

Musicals seem to be the one theatrical form in which outright silliness is not only acceptable but desirable. A farce has to have some underlying intelligence, some razor-sharp insight into manners and mores, in order to satisfy. But a musical needs only vivid tunes, lively dancing, sympathetic characters and perhaps a nasty arch-villain to please its audience. And Aurora Fox's merry production of Once Upon a Mattress, as silly as it is, has all four. Don Bill's direction and choreography are snappy, the performers talented and the songs (music by Richard Rodgers's daughter Mary) melodic and funny.

The story is a revisionist version of The Princess and the Pea-- what "really" happened when the princess showed up in a foreign kingdom drenched to the skin and claiming her rights as royalty. It seems that instead of a wise old queen who understood the esoterica of aristocratic biology (thanks to which a pea under a pile of down-filled mattresses can disturb the sleep of a true princess), we get the overprotective, shrewish Queen Aggravain--a mother who simply doesn't want her baby boy, the strapping Prince Dauntless, ever to marry. As the curtain rises, Aggravain is testing the twelfth princess to apply for Dauntless's hand in marriage. Her gauntlet: a kind of game show in which the questions gradually get harder until they're obviously impossible to answer.

Princess Number Twelve fails, of course. And to add to the court's distress, no one in the whole kingdom can marry until Dauntless gets hitched. Human nature being what it is, some of the lords and ladies have been a bit overeager, and the lovely Lady Larkin finds herself with child. So her faithful knight, Sir Harry, decides that the two of them shouldn't have to suffer their whole lives just because they had a moment of weakness. He sets out to find a princess who can pass the queen's rigorous tests, marry Dauntless and thus liberate the court from celibacy.

Harry's first choice, the Princess Winnifred, is so eager for marriage that she can't wait for the drawbridge, instead swimming the moat to reach her prince. Unfortunately, she finds the queen's severe attitude daunting--until Dauntless begs her to stay. It's left to the Minstrel, the Jester and the King (under a curse that keeps him mute) to help Princess Fred beat Aggravain at her own game.

Penny Alfrey is always a treat to watch--finding out that she has a lovely voice makes the experience twice as nice. She gives Lady Larkin a gentle, wide-eyed naivete that's only slightly parodistic--a charmed performance that complements Bruce Perry's overblown (but just right) and handsome Harry.

Kristen Samu's Princess Winnifred is mellow and brash by turns, but if anything, a bit too understated. A broader, goofier interpretation might serve the material better. Sue Leiser's Queen Aggravain is a bit dull--the delivery needs more thoughtful malice and campier self-deceit--while a little more restraint from Jeff Betsch as Dauntless might make his comedy more effective.

Leigh Anderson's sweet-voiced minstrel is entirely charming, but it is Andrew Shoffner who once more steals the show here as the Jester, a soft-shoe master and court entertainer. Shoffner was a hit last fall as Chicklit in the Theatre on Broadway's campy farce Psycho Beach Party. He has a clear, powerful voice, an accomplished dancing style and terrific comic presence. His athletic rendition of "Very Soft Shoes" is the high point of the whole evening.

It may seem a little weird to sex up a fairy tale as much as playwrights Jay Thompson, Marshall Barer and Dean Fuller have. But most of the innuendos will fly over the smaller tykes' heads, and the rest of the family will probably find this material tame enough stuff. After all, marriage is the goal for everyone except the queen--and fidelity a given among the good guys.


Once Upon a Mattress, through June 29 at the Aurora Fox, 9900 East Colfax Avenue, 361-2910.


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