Hawthorne Players have opened a terrifically enjoyable production of Once Upon a Mattress. It's the classic Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale "The Princess and the Pea" told with wonderful wit and charm. Music is by Mary Rodgers, Richard's daughter, and it's lovely music, with much humor in the music itself. The clever, clever lyrics are by Marshall Barer. ("Alas, alack, I lack a lass!" How's that for a lyric?)

The show opened on Broadway in 1959, but the humor is as fresh as ever. (That original production featured Carol Burnett as the Princess -- her first Broadway role.)

This is a great old-fashioned, well-crafted, unpretentious American musical comedy, and director Lori Renna manages it all with great love and respect for the script. We meet Queen Aggravain, who can't stop talking, and King Sextimus the Silent, who can't talk at all. (He's cursed with muteness.) They are in search of a bride for their son, the sweetly dweeby, innocent Prince Dauntless the Drab. There is great interest in this search because all of the many maidens around the castle are forbidden to marry until the Prince is wed. And of course he can only be married to a True Princess.

None of the maidens is more eager to find him a bride than Lady Larken. She is a "lady-in-waiting" in more than one sense: she's pregnant. Her lover, the handsome Sir Harry, goes off on a quest and brings back a remarkably spirited girl from the land of swamps. Impatient with the slow drawbridge, she swims the moat.

Mark Strathman, with a truly lovely tenor voice, is the Minstrel, who serves as narrator. We meet the Queen, played with verbal ferocity by Colleen Heneghan. Such a chatterbox, such a litany of complaints, such energy. There's a touch of the Red Queen in Ms. Heneghan's performance.

There's a crusty old Wizard, beautifully played John Robertson. Bradley Rohlf is adorable as the clueless Prince Dauntless. Alyssa Durbin brings a really beautiful voice and fine acting skills to the role of Lady Larken, and Spencer Collins is buff, bouffant and beautiful as her sweety, Sir Harry. The court Jester is played by Robert Doyle. I never knew he had such a terrific voice, and he does a really delightful soft-shoe number.

But particularly delicious were the performances of Adam Grun as King Sextimus and Elizabeth Breed Penny as the Princess Winifred.

Grun is a vastly experienced and familiar comic face on local stages, and here, in a mostly mute role, he displays finely honed skills in physical comedy. With sparkling eyes and a gleeful smile he spends much of his time chasing the young ladies, eager to grope any he can catch -- though, alas, he never seems to catch one. He, a mute, is part of an engaging trio -- miming rhymed lyrics with crisp immense precision. His little talk with his son about "the birds and the bees" is hilarious and just naughty enough.

But this show really belongs to Princess Winifred (or "Fred" as her friends call her). Here Elizabeth Penny really triumphs. She's stoutly built, but wonderfully agile, and her voice is a marvel -- strong and true. She's a fine comic actress, and she fills the role with such zest. 

The castle set, by Ken Clark, is colorful and flexible. Fine work is done by lighting designer Carl Wennlund, costumer Tracey Newcomb, choreographer Tim Grumich and musical director Joe Paule, Sr.

Hawthorne Players production of Once Upon a Mattress is a great pile of fun. It continues through August 6.

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