Tracey Ullman, Carol Burnett make 'Mattress' a delight

Television Review


Surely one of the most delightful examples of televised family entertainment this holiday season is Once Upon a Mattress. The delights in this Wonderful World of Disney presentation begin with the casting. Carol Burnett made her Broadway debut as the princess in this musical adaptation of The Princess and the Pea (music by Mary Rodgers, lyrics by Marshall Barer, book by Barer, Jay Thompson and Dean Fuller).

Burnett reprised this role twice on TV, in 1964 and 1972. This time, however, she's playing the princess' nemesis, the aptly named Queen Aggravain. The princess -- Winnifred the Woebegone ("Fred" for short) -- is played by Tracey Ullman, an actress whose comic sensibility is every bit as polished as Burnett's.

Decked out in ball gowns and headdresses designed by Bob Mackie in a style that could be called "fairy tale run riot," Burnett looks like a cross between Elizabeth I and Cruella De Vil. Aggravain is determined that her son, Prince Dauntless (Denis O'Hare as a frustrated mama's boy), never marry. Burnett illustrates how overly attached she is to this overage son in "That Baby of Mine," a new song written for the telecast by Ken and Mitzie Welch. The actress' delivery of this torchy number is a hoot, complete with swinging a pair of Dauntless' baby booties as if they were a stripper's props.

To keep the prince to herself, the queen devises impossible tests for each would-be bride. In Fred's case, a pea will be placed under 20 mattresses. If the unwitting princess falls asleep, she fails due to a lack of "Sensitivity," as Aggravain sings.

But Aggravain meets her match in Ullman's Fred -- a gutsy, never-say-die princess who belts out a hilarious "(I've always been) Shy," proving she's anything but. And, Ullman offers an irrepressible demonstration of Fred's unstoppable stamina in "Spanish Panic," a dance the queen devises to exhaust the princess by bedtime.

"Spanish Panic" also gives director / choreographer Kathleen Marshall a chance to showcase a cornucopia of styles, from the tango to the Charleston, ending in a marathon session in which Fred outlasts everyone else, including her partner.

The cast also includes a sweet turn by Tom Smothers as mute King Sextimus. And Zooey Deschanel and Matthew Morrison (the original Link in the Broadway musical Hairspray) are amusing as a conventionally handsome young couple facing a potentially unhappily-ever-after problem: Their immediate need to wed is thwarted by the queen's law that no one can marry before Dauntless ties the knot.

Once Upon a Mattress is partly a send-up of the classic fairy tale and partly a modern take on it. But the gently irreverent approach of the musical's creators -- perfectly captured by Marshall -- makes the show a charming fit for children at the same time that it's a satisfying program for adults. Now, that's sensitivity.

ONCE UPON A MATTRESS / / Airing tonight 7-9 p.m. / / WMAR, Channel 2

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