Talkin’ Broadway: Once Upon A Mattress

Originally published on Talkin’ Broadway.

once upon a mattressPlease pardon the pun, but there’s only one way to describe the Animus Ensemble’s cross-cast production of Once Upon a Mattress, now playing at the Plaza Theatre at the Boston Center for the Arts: Ballsy.  Director John Ambrosino has pushed the core joke of the show to the limit: now when Prince Dauntless sings that he’s “in love with a girl named Fred,” the irony isn’t that his beloved is somewhat masculine – his beloved is an actual man!

The gay marriage edition of Once Upon a Mattress was bound to happen sooner or later, and there could not have been a more skeptical audience member than I before the show started.  With gay anthems from Cher and Madonna playing on the PA and a hot pink set design by Andrew Haserlat looking more Taboo than Camelot, I braced myself for the worst.  The opening number featured a Minstrel portrayed by Stefanie Tovar as a butch dyke performance artist.  This, I thought to myself, is going to be a very long night.

And then something magical happened.  The stage flooded with fresh-faced young performers in modern dress carefully put together with some clever touches by Katie Sikkema. And backed by a band sounding much bigger than their numbers should allow (under the baton of Gary Durham), the company sold “Opening for a Princess” as the tuneful, funny song that it is.  Despite the modern dress, the clubland set, and Josie Bray’s choreography (unfortunately influenced by Wayne Cilento’sWicked moves), the number worked.

And the show kept working.  For, despite any political posturing Ambrosino might claim to be doing, at heart he (and, apparently, the rest of the Animus Ensemble) is just a big ol’ musical theatre queen, and I mean that in the best way possible.  Rather than directing the show to comment on the material, as the directors of both the recent television incarnation and the slightly less recent Broadway revival did, he infused his actors with the greatest gift a director can give: trust in the material.  So, by the time Brent Reno shows up in Esther Williams drag as the anything but “shy” Princess Winnifred, it doesn’t matter that the princess is being played by a man.  What matters is that the princess is being played by an actor who isn’t afraid to make the comedy as broad as can be while keeping the emotions of the love story honest and believable.  His impeccable timing and solid belt don’t hurt either.

Reno sets the bar high with his performance, moving instantly from madcap to touching.  But he’s matched by the other leads, from Kate deLima’s hilarious mile-a-minute Queen Aggravain to Todd Sandstrom’s sweetly dorky Dauntless.  Ariel Heller provides a solid legit sound to Sir Harry, although he’s somewhat upstaged by his Lady Larkin, Erin Tchoukaleff, who is about as ideal a soubrette as musical theatre could demand.

There are a few rough patches in the show, mostly centered on the secondary characters of the Jester and the Minstrel.  The material for these characters is tenuously connected to the main story at best, and this production offers no solution to this problem, although there is a spectacularly bizarre attempt to make the song “Very Soft Shoes” work that has to be seen to be believed.  I won’t spoil it for you here.

Still, the missteps are few and far between, and the rewards of this production are many.  As the opening (and closing) number says, a genuine princess is exceedingly rare.  I’d add that a relatively new theatre company with such a solid understanding of what makes musical comedy work is even rarer than that.  Don’t miss this one!

Once Upon a Mattress (Music by Mary Rodgers, Lyrics by Marshall Barer, Book by Jay Thompson, Dean Fuller, and Marshall Barer)  in the Plaza Theatre at the Boston Center for the Arts, 527 Tremont Street in Boston, now through June 24th. Tickets are $33.50 – $38.50, with student and senior discounts available. For tickets or information, call the Box Office at 617-933-8600 or visit the Calderwood Pavilion box office, 527 Tremont Street, or visit one of these or


Talkin’ Broadway: Promises, Promises

Originally published on Talkin’ Broadway.

Aimee Doherty and Jeff Mahoney

It seems contradictory to call a 37-year-old musical about adultery and attempted suicide a breath of fresh air, but the Animus Ensemble’s production of Promises, Promises is exactly that. The Burt Bacharach/Hal David/Neil Simon adaptation of The Apartment is rarely produced, perhaps because its distinctive sound is as dated as its outlook on women, relationships, and the workplace.

The story still has plenty of “ick” factor. The basic scenario: a young, would-be executive named C.C. Baxter (Jeff Mahoney) discovers the real trick to succeeding in business: loaning out the key to his apartment to his superiors at work, all looking for a place to take their mistresses. Mahoney comes across with a natural likeability, milking the comic potential of his character’s nebbishy tics to help distract from the sliminess of his actions. While his singing voice is a little thin for the score, he’s a terrific dancer and able to sell most of his numbers.

Baxter’s game comes crashing down when his boss, Sheldrake (Jerry Bisantz), uses Baxter’s apartment to sleep with Baxter’s crush (Aimee Doherty). Doherty sings beautifully and captures the sadness of her character, but her role is so underwritten that she simply isn’t given enough to work with. Bisantz, on the other hand, beautifully mines all sides of his character, almost making Sheldrake sympathetic, which only means his ultimate selfishness hits that much harder.

Just about every character in the show has questionable morals, which can make it a hard show to love. Thankfully, the actors and director John Ambrosino don’t shy away from the reality of these characters. That’s not to say this is a gritty Promises. The script frequently takes us from a dark moment to a hilarious comedy bit, and Ambrosino handles the transitions expertly. The show plays out against a Day-Glo set (designed by Peter Watson), with spot-on costumes by Courtney Dickson and Meghan O’Gorman. But the production’s aesthetic embraces the reality of the characters and the piece’s setting, relishing the look and feel of the late ’60s without letting the show get campy or ironic.

The entire show surges along with the syncopated pulse of Bacharach’s trademark rhythms, embodied perfectly through the choreography of Josie Bray. Her dances channel the best of Michael Bennett without once feeling like a retread. Every frug and swim feels appropriate and character driven, but mostly exciting and fun. Luckily, Bray is given much to do, from a fully choreographed overture to the show-stopping “Turkey Lurkey Time.” Unfortunately, the orchestra (under the baton of Brian D. Wagner) can’t quite keep pace with the demanding score.

Despite a few missteps along the way, the youthful enthusiasm of the show (right down to the most enthusiastic troop of ushers I’ve ever seen – in matching track suits, no less!) carries the evening. Promises, Promisesmay not leave you with deep questions to debate over post-show drinks, but it will send you off with a smile on your face and a catchy tune stuck in your head, and frankly, I can’t think of a better present for this holiday season.

Promises, Promises, presented by the Animus Ensemble at the Calderwood Pavilion at the Boston Center for the Arts, 527 Tremont Street in Boston’s South End, now through December 18. Performances are Wednesday and Thursday evenings at 7:30 pm; Friday and Saturday evenings at 8:00 pm; Saturday matinee at 4:00 pm; Sunday matinee at 2:00 pm. Tickets are $38.50, with student and senior discounts available. Tickets are available at the BCA box office,, or by calling 617-933-8600.

The Animus Ensemble’s season continues with a workshop production ofAlice, a new musical by Phoebe Sinclear and Scott Murphy, March 17 and 18 at the Green Street Studios.
Photo: Jess Dugan