On Friday, Nov. 4, the Pauper Players’ Fall Musical, Once Upon A Mattress, opened in McAlister Auditorium. Once Upon A Mattress is a musical comedy with music by Mary Rodgers, lyrics by Marshall Barer, and book by Jay Thompson, Dean Fuller and Marshall Barer. The musical originally opened off-Broadway in May 1959 before being moved to Broadway. The show follows the young and charmingly immature Prince Dauntless, played by Will Jordan ‘26, as he seeks to get married. Despite his excitement, his overprotective mother, Queen Aggravain, played by Georgia Thomas ‘26, is reluctant to allow her only son to marry. To prevent Dauntless from getting married, Queen Aggravain devises complex tests for every princess that comes to see Prince Dauntless as a prospective bride, under the ruse that she wants to ensure he finds the perfect wife. Prince Dauntless’s father, King Sextimus, played by Anna Carpenter ‘25, is silent due to a curse that was placed on him several years ago; therefore, he is unable to rule the kingdom and must allow Queen Aggravain to make all the decisions.
The Pauper Players’ production marked the directorial debut of sophomore Gayle Rhodes. Rhodes said she was first introduced to Once Upon A Mattress in the fifth grade when her school put on a production of the musical, and she fell in love with the show. She said, “Once Upon A Mattress is not one big story; rather, a collection of individuals woven together into a tapestry of the musical […] With the catchy songs, hilarious and heartfelt dialogue, and message of true love conquering all, there is no question as to why this show is so beloved.”
The show opens with The Minstrel, played by Mattie Marks ‘26, singing the prologue, “Many Moons Ago,” which introduces the audience to the main conflict of the show: “the prince couldn’t find a lass / Who would suit his mother’s pride.” The song also reveals the bizarre test the Queen created for the last tested princess, Princess Winnifred, played by Olivia Morrett ‘25: a small pea was placed under twenty mattresses, and the Queen believed a true princess would be sensitive enough to be able to feel the pea, which would disturb her slumber. After the song ends, we witness Princess number 12, played by Lexi Stone ‘23, fail a difficult history test. Prince Dauntless makes his displeasure known to his mother, as do the royal subjects who have gathered to watch the test, since they are not allowed to get married until the Prince does.
We also learn that Lady Larken, played by Mae Mae Collins ‘25, is pregnant with Sir Harry’s (William Jepson ‘26) child, and the two must get married, or Lady Larken will have to leave the kingdom to avoid the shame. The news that the two of them are expecting a child motivates Sir Harry to travel far away to find Princess Winnifred, since the Queen has already tested all the princesses of the surrounding kingdoms.
Soon after, Princess Winnifred arrives, and everyone is stunned to find that she swam the moat. In an instant, the Queen decides that Winnifred is not a real princess—and the sentiment is clearly shared, seeing as how Lady Larken butchered her first meeting with Princess Winnifred by assuming that she was a chambermaid and demanding she clean the room. Lady Larken’s embarrassment at her mistake leads to a fight between herself and Sir Harry, which ends in an intense yet comically childish breakup.
At Prince Dauntless’s insistence, Queen Aggravain agrees to test Princess Winnifred, but she schemes with The Wizard, played by Brycen Addison ‘25, to devise a sensitivity test wherein a small pea will be placed under twenty mattresses. The Queen knows this test will be impossible for her to pass, and her son will have to remain single. To ensure that Princess Winnifred sleeps, Queen Aggravain declares a ball will be held, and everyone will have to dance the exhausting “Spanish Panic,” choreographed by Olivia Shuff ‘25.
Besides having Princess Winnifred dance the “Spanish Panic,” Queen Aggravain hypnotizes her, gives her a sleeping draft, and has The Nightingale of Samarkand (Emilie Milburn ‘26) sing her a lullaby. Despite this tremendous effort to ensure Princess Winnifred is able to sleep through the night, she is able to feel the pea, which keeps her up all night. The next morning, she complains about her inability to sleep due to the “uncomfortable bed” that she proclaims “belongs in the torture chamber.” Prince Dauntless loudly declares that she has passed the test, but Princess Winnifred’s excitement is cut short by her falling to the floor out of exhaustion. The Queen argues that Winnifred is not a suitable bride for him. However, King Sextimus’ curse is suddenly broken when a mouse bites a hawk, and it is now the Queen who cannot speak. King Sextimus rushes her out of the room, and the rest of the ensemble celebrates the finding of a genuine princess.
If you saw the show, you may have noticed that the costumes were modern, as opposed to Renaissance-era, as one would expect from this show. Rhodes stated, "I decided to set the show in a late 20th-century court instead of a Renaissance court simply because Renaissance costumes are itchy, and I know that I personally do not enjoy wearing them onstage."
Speaking about the challenges of putting together a complex show, Rhodes stated, "Some scenes were more challenging than others (especially "Tents" and "Quiet"), but it was the effort of the group that got [the scenes] onstage and looking fantastic." She added that it was also challenging to modify some of the jokes in order to better align them with
modern humor and make them more relatable to the audience, since the book was written in the 1950s, causing some of the humor to be outdated. She also expressed her gratitude to her creative team, CJ Waldrop '23 (Music Director), Olivia Shuff '25 (Choreographer), and Morgan Carns '25 (Stage Manager), who helped her throughout the process "not only as coworkers but as friends [Rhodes] could really talk to."
The Pauper Players’ production of Once Upon A Mattress is filled with an incredible cast that does a wonderful job of expressively singing and delivering dialogue alike. The set design includes a backdrop that changes colors, such as how it turns green and blue when Winnifred reminisces about her home in the swamp, light pink when Winnifred and Dauntless shyly show their affection for one another, and a bright, daunting red during Lady Larken and Sir Harry’s fight. The cast and crew do a brilliant job of telling the story, and Gayle Rhodes’s directorial debut did not disappoint.
As Rhodes stated, the show truly is a tapestry of individuals coming together to show how powerful love can be. This type of love is romantic: Winnifred and Dauntless coming together and quickly falling in love, and Larken and Harry realizing their love for one another is stronger than the anger they felt during their fight and coming back together. This feeling, though, is also evidenced by platonic love: in the musical number, “The Minstrel, The Jester, and I,” the Minstrel, the Jester (Amelia Smith ‘26), and King Sextimus sing a song about their love for one another, declaring “If one of our trio should ever depart / Then the others would languish and die / We’re like three different people with only one (heart).”
Once Upon A Mattress is a heartfelt story with plenty of comedic moments that make every second of the show entertaining. Every single person who was involved with the show shined on Friday night with an incredible opening show. I always look forward to The Pauper Players’ performances, and this show did not disappoint. I am amazed by the cast and the crew of this show, and I look forward to seeing what The Pauper Players have in store for us with their next performance!