Once Upon a Mattress
Footlight Players
Running through May 14Footlight Theatre
20 Queen St., 722-4487

The Footlight Players’ latest musical comedy takes the simple tale of the Princess and the Pea and stretches it out to fit the full-length framework of a traditional stage farce. Harried characters run through doorways, a loopy old man chases girls around in circles, a shrewish woman makes everybody’s life miserable, and two young lovers get the wrong end of the shtick.

This time, the setting (“Spring 1428”) is as medieval as some of the jokes (the appearance of a rubber chicken is a good indicator of the humor level). The doorways lead to a moat, the loopy old man is King Sextimus, and the domineering woman is Queen Aggravain. The Queen tries every trick in her regal book to prevent her son, Prince Dauntless, from getting married; when the show begins, Princess #13 is failing Aggravain’s acid tongue test. The court vizier, part Merlin and part Regis Philbin, finds the contestant lacking, to the consternation of the ladies in waiting, who are doing just that — they can’t get married till Dauntless does.

Luckily for them, perky Princess Winnifred arrives to pep things up. But she’ll be out on her ear if she fails the Queen’s sensitivity test, which involves a pea and a towering pile of bedding.

Originally a hit vehicle for comedian Carol Burnett in 1959, Mattress revolves around the insomniac Princess Winnifred (Fred for short). Rebecca Knox works hard to hold the audience’s attention, belting out her songs, grinning, shrugging, and screwing up her face when her character’s thinking. Her harsh makeup and shapeless costumes don’t prevent her from making Fred likeable, though some of her calculated mugging seems out of place among other, more natural members of the cast.

James Alexander is also agreeable as the drippy momma’s boy Prince Dauntless, contrasting with the dashing Sir Harry, played by Brandon Joyner. The scenes between Joyner and Elaine Cray as Lady Larkin are more engaging than the Dauntless-Fred ones, with Cray providing the most notable performance in the show. She’s backed up by Amanda Allen, Henriet Fourie, and Carolyn Wenner as the other ladies-in-waiting, all providing some priceless reactions to Fred’s hijinks.

David Ardrey makes the most of his role as Sextimus the Silent, the henpecked, dumbstruck liege who struggles to explain the facts of life to his son. As the Queen, Jaqueline Helmer struggles to recall a few lines toward the end of the play and delivers others too slowly, throwing off the show’s fast pace (on opening night, anyway), but she effectively creates a grating, overbearing villain and a formidable opponent for Fred.

The show’s sets and props are sparse (only 14 mattresses instead of 20!) and the costumes unsophisticated — certainly compared to Footlight’s Amadeus last January. There’s far less attention to detail here, with a mismatch in quality that ranges from Sir Harry’s low-rent duds to the impressive, gravity-defying headgear of the ladies-in-waiting; the Wizard seems to be wearing a party hat decorated with glow-in-the-dark stars. To be fair, while Amadeus costume designer Cherie May had three credited assistants, this show’s sole costumier is Allison Duncil.

Thankfully, a few of the songs rock, with tunes so catchy that audiences won’t be able to help humming them on the way home. Songs like “Many Moons Ago” (ably sung by Evan Anderson’s Minstrel) and “Very Soft Shoes” (a solo for Dion Hargrave’s Jester) help to round out the minor characters. “Song of Love” is one of the best numbers, marrying a frenetic pace and humor (“I’m in love with a girl named Fred” sings the Prince) in a way that sums up the show.

Mattress‘ other big plus is its slick choreography, courtesy of director Robert Ivey, artistic director of The Robert Ivey Ballet. The dancing is tight yet exuberant, dragging only in an overlong dance-a-thon sequence. In the story it’s supposed to go on all night, but does the audience have to feel like it’s sitting through the whole thing?

This is definitely a show for lovers of fairy tales, rather than fans of carefully crafted theatre; little girls will love the princess’ antics, and parents will be tapping their toes to the tunes. Our advice: wait for the matinee and take the kids.

Love Best of Charleston?

Help the Charleston City Paper keep Best of Charleston going every year with a donation. Or sign up to become a member of the Charleston City Paper club.