Stage Review: ‘Once Upon a Mattress’ Stacks Up Well at YSU

By J.E.Ballantyne Jr.
YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – Many moons ago, in a far off place, a domineering medieval queen decrees that no one in her kingdom shall marry until a bride is found for her son. This familiar tome was the basis for the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale, “The Princess and the Pea.”

The more updated parlance of this story – the Mary Rodgers musical “Once Upon a Mattress” – opened Friday night as the finale of the YSU University Theatre season. Directed by Adam Day Howard, “Mattress” hits a home run in every department.

Leading this large cast, Elise Vargo takes on the wild and crazy role of Winnifred the Woebegone (Fred for short). This is the role made famous by newbie Carol Burnett in the original Broadway production in 1959. And although Vargo doesn’t quite have the belty voice of Burnett, she capitalizes on each and every morsel in the character. Her energy is endless and when she’s on stage (which is most of the time) she lights up every scene she’s in.

With a great singing voice, impeccable comedy timing, and a thoroughly professional stage presence, Vargo is having the time of her life with “Fred” and even seems to successfully borrow some Burnett-isms in the process – most notably in “Shy” as she fully cranks up the humor. Her scene trying to sleep atop the stacks of mattresses is also a notable one. Vargo has been a strong mainstay during her YSU years but this role tops them all.

Not to be outdone, supporting characters Lady Larken and Sir Harry, played by Chloe Downey and Mekhi Dawson, respectively, both turn in outstanding performances as the lovers who can’t wed until the queen’s son walks down the aisle. Downey is bright and lovable as Larken with a sweet vocal quality and an ability to wrap up the audience in her arms and carry them with her.

Dawson plays Harry as the strong, dauntless knight determined to search far and wide for any princess to satisfy the queen’s demands. With a strong, velvety singing voice he is the perfect complement to Downey’s Larken. The two are a delight with their duets, “In a Little While” and “Yesterday I Loved You.”

Creating all of the havoc for everyone, Queen Aggravain is broadly portrayed by Mallory Ehrhart. Leaving no stones unturned, Ehrhart makes Aggravain the driving force of the musical with fast paced dialog, a great comedy sense, and a great caricature of the domineering royal mother determined to keep her son by her side – forever. She handles long detailed speeches with aplomb and never misses a beat and takes nary a breath.

On the flip side, her husband, King Sextimus, is the opposite. Hen-pecked, subservient and totally silent (due to an ancient curse), Cyrus Dzikowski gives an hilarious performance. He has a tough job. Not being able to speak, he must pantomime everything he is thinking. He does it well and with great clarity.

Sam Nabring brings a genuine naivete to the role of son Dauntless. Trapped by his mother’s stringent standards for his mate, Nabring plays the downtrodden Dauntless well. He doesn’t have a real strong singing voice but he sells his musical forays successfully.

Other great moments in the show were provided by Sam Law as the Wizard with some unexpected and wonderfully crafted “magical moments;” Emalee Chappa as the Jester who really lit up the stage with “Very Soft Shoes;” and Ben Podnar as the Minstrel. Podnar gets the whole evening started with the lilting “Many Moons Ago” along with strong acting throughout.

The rest of the company is first-rate in every respect. No weak links in this cast. Everyone is sharp, professional and fun to watch. It is obvious that every actor on stage is having a good time. That translates to the audience having a good time, which they did.

Director Howard and his production team have put a fantastic version of an old chestnut on stage at YSU. For me, this is the hit of the entire YSU season. Choreography by Lisa Howard, Cecily Herchek, and Emalee Chappa is creative and well executed. Scenic design by Todd Dicken is colorful, making use of drops and minimal set pieces with scene changes done swiftly and smoothly. Jonathan Zelezniak’s lighting design complimented Dicken’s set design exceptionally well. Costumes by Katherine Garlick were well designed, executed and added great color to an already colorful production.

It was great to see college students, in this day and age, perform a golden Broadway classic and do it with such zest and zeal. Catch this show – it’s a must!

“Once Upon a Mattress” continues April 6,12, 13 at 7:30 p.m. April 7, 14 at 2 p.m.

Pictured at top: The cast of “Once Upon a Mattress” includes Elise Vargo, Sam Nabring, Mallory Ehrhart and Chloe Downey. (Photo by Carrie Yasnowski)

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