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‘Mattress’ has plenty of bounce

MONDAY, JULY 21, 2008

The Coeur d’Alene Summer Theatre’s production of “Once Upon a Mattress,” a wispy-thin fractured fairy tale based on “The Princess and the Pea,” is clearly an updated, modern version.

Right from the beginning of this Roger Welch-directed show, we are showered with references to “Survivor” and “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.”

Yet this musical’s charms remain exactly the same as they were in the 1950s – a gently satirical tone, tuneful songs by Mary Rodgers and, above all, a perfect musical-comedy character name Princess Winnifred the Woebegone.

Winnifred splashes onto the stage in one of the genre’s great character-introduction numbers, a number called “Shy.”

“I’ve always been shy,” sings Winnifred. “I confess that I’m shy / Can’t you guess that this confident air / is a mask that I wear / because I’m shy.”

Now, imagine these lyrics belted out by the terrific Kat Ramsburg in full Ethel-Merman-meets-Queen -Latifah mode – all big gestures, big hair and big personality – and you can see how much fun this song can be in the right hands.

Carol Burnett was exactly the right person for this job on Broadway and Ramsburg is in the same league.

This veteran Seattle actress owns this role in every way. She’s a great physical comedienne, doing a funny weight-lifting parody in one scene, and bouncing gymnastically on a mattress (make that 20 mattresses) in another. She also has a solid, room-filling singing voice, which means that most of the memorable numbers in this show belong to her. Besides “Shy,” she is also a scream in a number in which she imbibes a little too much mead.

Ramsburg didn’t dominate every scene. The comic triumvirate of the Minstrel (Jadd Davis), the Jester (Robby French) and King Sextimus the Silent (Jack Bannon) delivered a great little vaudeville-meets-the-Three- Stooges number called “The Minstrel, the Jester and I.”

And Amy Ross was inspired as the domineering, selfish and heartless Queen Aggravain. Ross played her as a cross between Cruella De Vil and Cinderella’s evil stepmother – although neither of them could match Aggravain for devious, passive-aggressive nastiness.

Craig Heider played her oppressed son, Prince Dauntless, as a kind of mopey medieval Napoleon Dynamite. He later blossoms satisfyingly into his own man.

The sets and costumes filled the stage with a pleasant pastel wash, a kind of cartoon Renaissance world in Easter egg colors. The 20-mattress set piece – crucial to the plot – was so tall and realistic, I feared for Winnifred’s safety as she thrashed around up top.

A couple of quibbles: The opening prologue, in which the Minstrel tells the story of the Princess and the Pea, with semi-ballet choreography, was a less-than-dynamic start to the proceedings. Also, the Jester’s body-stocking costume with random ribbons was just – wrong. The Minstrel looked like a minstrel, but the Jester looked like a figure skater.

Overall, though, this is satisfying family entertainment. The entire show is built around one comic premise – that Princess Winnifred is no Snow White, no Sleeping Beauty, no Grace Kelly. She’s something even better – a fun, earthy, good-natured terrific broad. It’s a surprisingly worthy theme for such a lighthearted show.

“Once Upon a Mattress” continues through Aug. 2. Call (800) 4-CDATIX.

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