The appeal of Once Upon a Mattress apparently baffled even the original cast members, who have expressed surprise at its longevity. Indeed, Mary Rodgers and Marshall Barer's fractured fairy tale has proven a staple of local productions since it first hit the stage in 1959, despite the mixed critical reaction that met it. The new production by the Cary Players shows why it's proven an enduring musical—even if some elements haven't aged well.
The extended retelling of "The Princess and the Pea" is best remembered for launching the Broadway career of Carol Burnett, who originated the role of Princess Winnifred on stage and also appeared in three TV adaptations. As Winnifred in this production, Kelsey Tucker has a softer touch than the brassy Burnett; you don't quite get her blowing everyone away with her energy when she sings "Shy," but she's funny and charming when she conveys her frustrations with the idiotic tasks assigned to her. Her voice doesn't reach the back of the auditorium in her best number, "Happily Ever After," but that might have been the result of problems with the sound system for the recently opened Cary Arts Center, where the production takes place.
The biggest problem with Once Upon a Mattress is its slightness; the book, by Jay Thompson, Dean Fuller and Barer, contains a number of extraneous characters and scenes at the expense of plot and character development. And while Winnifred is a brassier and more competent protagonist than the spineless Prince Dauntless (Derek Taylor), there's still a whiff of sexism in the comeuppance of the domineering Queen Agravain (Alison Lawrence, who does a fine job with the character's comic monologues) by the skirt-chasing King Sextimus (Del Flack, who likewise does well with the pantomime). Likewise, the hapless Lady Larken (Rebecca Leonard) mostly exists to capitulate to the domineering Sir Harry (Jon Karnofsky), though they get several of the best songs and do well with them.
Really, Once Upon a Mattress is just an excuse to provide a drawn-out version of a short fairy tale, but the PG-level naughtiness and farcical tone give it a certain charm that appeals to both younger and older audiences. Like, well, an old mattress, it's comfortable and even relaxing, even if age has resulted in a few lumps.