Empty calories

Chico State’s spring musical is fairly fun seasonal fluff

LOVERS’ TALK Sir Harry (David Deuel, left) Lady Larkin (Hannah Knight) give their relationship another go in Chico State’s School of the Arts’ spring musical, <i>Once Upon a Mattress.</i>

LOVERS’ TALK Sir Harry (David Deuel, left) Lady Larkin (Hannah Knight) give their relationship another go in Chico State’s School of the Arts’ spring musical, Once Upon a Mattress.

Photo By Tom Angel

Basically, Once Upon a Mattress is an inconsequential piece of fluff meant, I suppose, to be carried by a Carol Burnett sort of star and a few specialty performers who drive all before them with such force that no one notices the mediocrity of the dialogue or the clichàd nature of the music. It is filled with what George Bernard Shaw would call “Gilbertism,” the annoying tendency to play each scene for its own laughs and ignore any underlying consistency of theme or meaningful ties between characters and real life. I do not much like the play, and this makes me a rather prejudiced commentator.

Nonetheless, director Sue Pate and her crew have poured much into their spring-musical production, and, I suppose, it will be good fun for many. Children should love it.

Marty Gilbert, Chico State’s masterful set designer, has created what is probably his last set for the university—a lovely medieval castle consisting of a central tower and two movable curves of masonry standing before it on either side that can be swung around in such a way that we are either inside or outside the castle—and all this backed by fantasy towers and a mountain peak. The orchestra also, integrated into the play by Jeffrey Childs and conducted by Music Department Chair Mike Bankhead, is excellent and allows the singers, all of whose lyrics are clearly understandable, to shine.

The costumes are fun and bright, in fairy-tale styles, complete with long hair for a number of the women and page-boy cuts for the men. There are a several smaller and larger dance numbers, my favorite being a soft-shoe duet between the Jester (Brian Zoppi) and the ghost of his father (Jimmy Robertson) in and out from behind the scrim during the second act.

Indeed, the play is permeated by dance, and many graceful and/or clever bits appear as the story progresses and are as pleasing as some of the larger numbers.

The characters, as one might expect, are storybook flat, with the possible exception of Princess Winnifred (Maeve Martin), who is a kind of awkward fit. The play’s writers seem to have conceived her character as a combination of American-type rugged individualist, anti-hero princess and sweet young thing with whom we are asked to sympathize. Martin, who is appropriately pretty, does her best to pull all these qualities together into one person, but, especially when set against a bunch of flat characters, her character is pulled in too many directions.

Joel Rogers is a fine and appealing Minstrel/Storyteller, and Denice Burbach does a fine job as the bullying Queen Aggravian. David McCormick makes an appropriately awkward Prince Dauntless, and Davis Carlson cuts a fine, slightly rotund figure as the cursed-with-speechlessness King Sextimus, who gets himself involved in several (perhaps too many) routines involving his dependence on sign language, my favorite bit from which translates the word “goose” using an offstage shriek.

The cast also contains a pair of off-again-on-again lovers, Lady Larkin (Hannah Knight) and Sir Harry (David Deuel). Like Winnifred’s character, Larkin’s is a bit torn between its occasional shrewishness and its appeal for audience sympathy, making it a somewhat uncomfortable fit as well.

So Once Upon a Mattress is a bit of a mixed bag, in my opinion. But, what the heck. It’s spring; it’s the season for lightweight amusement. If simple escape is what you want, give it a try.