Saturday 1:30 p.m.: ‘Mattress’ is stuffed with talent

WHAT: “Once Upon a Mattress”

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday through April 14

WHERE: Ford Theater, Bliss Hall, Youngstown State University

HOW MUCH: Tickets are $16 for adults, $12 for senior citizens and YSU alums, $9 YSU faculty and staff and free for YSU students and are available online at www.ysu.tix.com and by calling 330-941-3105.

YOUNGSTOWN – More than likely, the parents of the cast members for Youngstown State University’s production of “Once Upon a Mattress” weren’t born when the musical made its debut in 1959.

But the talented young cast made the 65-year-old show feel fresh and fun in the first of six performances Friday at Bliss Hall’s Ford Theater.

The comedic musical is an adaptation of the fairy tale “The Princess and the Pea.” Over-protective Queen Aggravain has decreed that no one can marry until her son, Prince Dauntless, finds a bride of royal blood, and she’s created increasingly difficult obstacles to delay that inevitability. An unplanned pregnancy for Lady Larken and Sir Harry makes the queen’s decree problematic, so Harry goes on a quest to find a princess who is up to the queen’s challenges.

Enter Winnifred, played with a gangly physicality, an expressive face and a big voice by Elise Vargo.

Vargo nails her big number “Shy,” not only hitting the notes and modulating her volume but also hitting the humorous beats of the lyrics. Winnifred is a rare “princess” role where physical comedy skills may be the primary requirement. Vargo handles that while also convincingly charming Prince Dauntless (Sam Nabring).

Mallory Ehrhart embraces the domineering qualities of Aggravain, delivering her lines furiously, both in their emotion and their speed. If this was the 1980s, Ehrhart would have a future in Federal Express commercials with that rapid-fire delivery. She approaches the line, but doesn’t go too over the top.

Sam Law brings a magical flair to the Wizard, and Chloe Downey as Lady Larken, Mekhi Dawson as Sir Harry and Ben Podnar as the Minstrel all display well-trained voices.

In a show filled with vocal skill, Cyrus Dzikowski is memorable with his silence as cursed King Sextimus, who is unable to speak but has no problem expressing himself.

As the Jester, Emalee Chappa impresses with her reactions and timing in the first act, and she shines in the big tap number “Very Soft Shoes” in the second act.

In addition to the tap sequence, choreographer Lisa Howard creates some more intricate dance steps for the group numbers than local productions often feature, and the cast executes them well.

The show has that kind of polish at all levels. Director Adam D. Howard keeps the pacing quick and the scene transitions even quicker. The cast feels ever-present and in-the-moment, reacting and responding in ways that accentuate the humor and add laughs to the production.

He did double duty by also leading the pit orchestra during the performance. A live orchestra brings something to the theatrical experience that pre-recorded tracks can’t capture, and opening night had none of the sound balance issues that can be the only downside of live orchestration.

The director raved about Katherine Garlick’s costumes in the preview story, and he didn’t oversell her work. The clothing adds a visual pop to the production, and the queen’s head gear is an architectural marvel.

The only tech element that fell short opening night wasn’t on stage. For some reason, the lights along the walls at Ford Theater flashed off and on occasionally during the performance, the kind of rapid flashing that might accompany a fire alarm.

It was hugely distracting in the audience, but the cast never indicated it was a distraction to them, making it one more example of the professional sheen of the entire production.

Have an interesting story? Email Entertainment Editor Andy Gray at agray@tribtoday.com


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