A classic fairytale rejigged as a musical comedy
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A classic fairytale rejigged as a musical comedy

Once Upon a Mattress. Music by Mary Rodgers. Lyrics by Marshall Barer. Book by Jay Thompson, Dean Fuller, and Marshall Barer, adapted from The Princess and the Pea by Hans Christian Andersen. Directed by Anita Davenport. Ickle Pickle Productions. Belconnen Theatre, January 11 to 24, 2019. canberraticketing.com.au or 6275 2700.

It's The Princess and the Pea - but not as you know it. Ickle Pickle Productions' family summer show is the 1959 Broadway musical Once Upon a Mattress, a retelling of Hans Christen Andersen's fairytale with a twist or two and music by Mary Rodgers (daughter of musical theatre legend Richard Rodgers).

From left: Isaac Gordon as Dauntless, Elliot Cleaves as Minstrel, April Hand as Lady in Waiting and Alex McPherson as Winnifred in <i>Once Upon a Mattress.</i>

From left: Isaac Gordon as Dauntless, Elliot Cleaves as Minstrel, April Hand as Lady in Waiting and Alex McPherson as Winnifred in Once Upon a Mattress.

The story is set in a faraway land "many moons ago", the opening song proclaims. Alex McPherson plays the lead role of Princess Winnifred the Woebegone (known as Fred) who is nothing like the passive character awaiting rescue that so many fairytales depict.

"She is ballsy, independent and she's strong," McPherson says.

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"The thing I like most about her is she has complete confidence in her own ability."

Queen Aggravain (Deanna Gibbs) has taken control of the kingdom from her husband, King Sextimus (Joe Moores). Wanting to keep their son, Prince Dauntless (Isaac Gordon), single, the queen has decreed that only the princess who can pass a test of her devising may marry him. Moreover, nobody in the kingdom is allowed to marry until he does.

Sir Harry (Steven Galinec) and Lady Larkin (Alissa Pearson) are particularly perturbed by the latter edict, since she is now pregnant by him. Since no eligible princess has yet appeared, he goes looking, and comes across Winnifred, a princess who has led a sheltered life in the kingdom of Swampland.

"She doesn't make the greatest first impression," McPherson says.

"She swims across the moat."

While the king is impressed by this feat, the queen is not. She sets another of her seemingly impossible tests. Fred must spend the night on a bed that has 20 mattresses. Underneath the bottom one is a single pea. Will Fred have the sensitivity to notice it? And even if she does, will Queen Aggravain accept the result?

From left: Elliot Cleaves as Minstrel, Alex McPherson as Winnifred and Isaac Gordon as Dauntless in <i>Once Upon a Mattress.</i>

From left: Elliot Cleaves as Minstrel, Alex McPherson as Winnifred and Isaac Gordon as Dauntless in Once Upon a Mattress.

Once Upon a Mattress premiered off-Broadway in 1959 before moving to Broadway for a healthy run. The original Fred was Carol Burnett, who reprised the role in two TV productions in 1964 and 1972 and then played the role of the queen in a 2005 TV version. In 1996 Sarah Jessica Parker played Fred in a Broadway revival.

McPherson says Fred captures the attention of Dauntless immediately and brings out a softness in her.

"She becomes quite protective of Dauntless," he says.

Although this is a fairytale musical comedy, McPherson says she is trying to play Fred as a real person.

"I've been careful not to take her over the top," she says.

Director Anita Davenport hadn't heard of Once Upon a Mattress, which hasn't been produced in Canberra since the 1980s, before taking on the project. But she was impressed by its complex songs and its humour.

"It's wonderful and it's really lovely to discover a 'new' show," she says.

"It's amazing fun ... it's a full family show while still having a sense of humour directed at adults."

Davenport wants to embrace the ridiculousness of the show - puppets will make an appearance - while still celebrating Fred as a strong, independent woman. She notes that in this musical, unlike many, the lead couple are comedic while the secondary couple are the serious romantic duo.

She says that although a lot of people might not have seen it, many will be familiar with the original fairytale.

Ickle Pickle artistic director Justin Watson says the show, as usual for the company, combines adult, child and youth performers, so the younger cast members can learn from those more experienced.

He says the company has also buillt up a following for its family-friendly summer productions, which have included Oliver! and Peter Pan, drawing on the pool of local talent.

"We want to be doing shows our audience wants to see," he says.

Ron Cerabona is an arts reporter for The Canberra Times.

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