I saw this onstage once, years ago at the Tacoma Little Theatre. My sister used to work there when I was first living in Washington, and though I don't know remember why, I was there one day when they were performing this show. It's about the only thing I know for sure that I saw there, and the other--[i]A Little Night Music[/i]--had nothing to do with Elaine; I took myself for my birthday, because it was playing around my birthday and I had no better plans. I think I was usher for [i]Once Upon a Mattress[/i], though. I do remember that their princess was doing her very best Carol Burnett, because that's who originated the role on Broadway in 1959. I suspect that this is one of those shows that gets done by community theatres a lot; it's probably available relatively cheap, and it's relatively simple to stage. There are also plenty of minor roles so you can fill the audience with people's families.
Prince Dauntless (Denis O'Hare) wants to get married. However, his mother, Aggravain (Burnett herself), will not let him marry anyone who cannot pass a test to prove that she's a princess. Lady Larken (Zooey Deschanel) is in despair, because no one else is allowed to marry until Prince Dauntless does--and Lady Larken is pregnant by Sir Harry (Matthew Morrison). So Sir Harry goes off on a quest and brings back Princess Winnifred (Tracey Ullman) of a kingdom to the north. Queen Aggravain hasn't been best pleased with any of the offerings so far, but this? She swims the moat! Dauntless falls in love, but Aggravain conspires with her wizard (Edward Hibbert) to devise a test that Winnifred will be certain to fail. She will test the thing that she is most certain Winnifred doesn't possess--her sensitivity. She will try the old "pea under twenty mattresses" test. But surely that's just a story, and surely this princess, too, is doomed to fail the test!
There is no delicate way to put this. Tracey Ullman was too old for the role. Yes, she was born the year the show opened on Broadway, but let's face it--that means she was forty-six when this version was filmed. She's three years older than Denis O'Hare, who looks his age. She's still sprightly and energetic, and she doesn't look as though she's about to fall over during the various dance numbers, no matter how up-tempo they are, but she is still obviously old enough so that the succession would be far from certain. They don't do a lot of close-ups, but every time they do, you can see the lines. She still looks great, and I'm not trying to say she doesn't. I'm certainly not trying to say she should have been Aggravain instead, though from a historical perspective, it would have been more accurate. I'm saying I wouldn't have cast her in the thing at all. Carol Burnett is pulling off middle aged, but Tracey Ullman doesn't pull off young. It's almost as though they decided to balance the royals' ages without worrying about whether they should.
I never feel entirely comfortable with why Aggravain doesn't want Dauntless to get married, either. Winnifred gets a line toward the end about how they'll go find their own kingdom and not live with the in-laws, but of course that's ridiculous. Dauntless is an only child, and he'll stay home and await his chance to take the throne of his father, King Sextimus (Tom Smothers). And sure, maybe Winnifred will take more of his time than Aggravain would like, but the kind of woman who is that doting on a son is often thrilled at the prospect of grandchildren. Her motivation never seems to work. Either it should be expected that Sextimus will retire and give Dauntless the throne or else she should be afraid that being a grandmother will make her seem old. Just wanting all of Dauntless's attention is kind of creepy, and anyway Burnett's version of the character only gives the impression that it's what's going on in one brief musical number.
I mean, it's charming enough if you manage not to think about all of this. The music is decent, if not great. Satirical takes on fairy tales can be a lot of fun. The bit about the mute king is fun, if unnecessary, and Michael Boatman does a fine job as the jester. However, I almost think this is the kind of show that most needs a live audience. Humans react better to things in groups. You're less inclined to laugh at something if you're alone than if you're with other people. And, yes, from the back of an auditorium, who's going to notice a few lines? I'm not going to tell you not to watch it, especially if you're a Carol Burnett fan--or even a Tracey Ullman fan. Heck, Tom Smothers even fools about with a yo-yo at one point, if that's the sort of thing that interests you. Nothing spectacular, but there it is. Still, I found the whole thing a bit of a disappointment. I'd much rather the library had the version Carol Burnett herself did on TV in 1964 before a live studio audience. Sometimes, the catalog just has regrets.