TMP’s ‘Once Upon a Mattress’ brings something soft and bouncy to the holidays

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The Tacoma Musical Playhouse is known for it’s big, elaborate sets and large ensemble casts. Currently showing is “Once Upon a Mattress,” TMP’s holiday show. Photo by Kat Dollarhide

Tacoma Musical Playhouse is running a production of Jay Thompson, Dean Fuller and Marshall Barer’s “Once Upon a Mattress” as its mainstage holiday show. The show is a comedic retelling of the Hans Christian Anderson story of “The Princess and the Pea.” In this version, Winnifred (or “Fred”) is the 13th princess to be tested to see if she is worthy to wed the prince.

Directed by Jon Douglas Rake and with lighting designed by John Chenault, the show features elaborate sets and colorful costumes.

A brilliant performance is turned in by Emma Deloye, the star of the show, who plays Princess Winnifred the Woebegone (who hails from a swamp kingdom far away). Deloye, a student at Pacific Lutheran University, has been a regular actress at TMP. Her brash, brassy voice and confident stage presence are perfect for the portrayal of the sassy princess who can swim the moat and win the prince.

Another actress comfortable in her role is Deanna Martinez, who is a commanding presence as Queen Aggravain, the jealous mother of the prince. Martinez can deliver her lines with a menacing purr and perform her musical parts with sultry ease. Ashley Koon, as Lady Larken — a knocked-up lady of the court — is enchanting. Her voice is like a lilting silk ribbon dancing in the air as she performs her fair share of the music in the show.

Amongst the menfolk, Jeremy Lynch is appropriately dorky as Prince Dauntless. His are some of the best male vocals in the show. The infectious happiness exuded by Tony Williams, here playing the court minstrel, is hard to ignore. John Miller is steady in his supporting role as the court wizard.

The production features a nice ensemble cast that adds leavening to the music of many voices singing in harmony and provides the bodies that enliven the spectacle of big dance numbers and crowd scenes. The lighting effects for this show also produce some stunning visual moments.

“Once Upon a Mattress” is a product of 1950s East coast musical comedy, having opened off-Broadway in 1959. Carol Burnett won a Tony in 1960 for her role as Princess Winnifred in the original Broadway cast. Marshall Barer’s song lyrics are often quite bouncy and crafty in their deft play with language.

At one point during the play, I was trying to figure out the why Queen Aggravain is bent on keeping her son from getting married (a situation aggravating to the other characters since none can be wed until the prince has his own wife.) Is there an Oedipus thing going on or is the queen trying to stay in power by keeping her son unmarried and without an heir? I quickly realized, however, that it was not a good idea to probe into character motivation in a musical extravaganza that is meant as fluffy entertainment.

Indeed, there is enough fluff in this show to stuff at least a few — if not 20 — mattresses. The mute King Sextimus the Silent (Joe Woodland) has to perform numerous charades to deliver his “lines.” The gag, however, wears thin after the first few go rounds. A soft shoe dance led by the court jester (Josh Anderman) seems added in as padding. The musical preludes performed to an empty curtain before both acts also seem unnecessarily lengthy.

Scenes of the lecherous old king chasing after the young women of the court are a bit jarring given the context of the recent rash of sexual harassment allegations against celebrities and politicians.

As a bit of colorful, light-hearted holiday fare, TMP’s “Once Upon a Mattress” is a good fit for the color, light and festive feel of the season. Come to this show for fun and frivolity, not for depth and profundity.

The show runs through Dec. 17. For ticketing and scheduling information visit tmp.org or call (253) 565-6867.

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