She can swim a castle moat, pump iron and gulp wine from a goblet, but is Winnifred a "real" princess?
Only her mattress knows for sure.
That's the foundation for Once Upon a Mattress, a musical comedy presented by City Players premiering tonight and running through Sunday at Ruth Eckerd Hall.
The musical, based on Hans Christian Andersen's fairy tale The Princess and the Pea, opened in 1959 with Carol Burnett playing the part of the irrepressible Princess Winnifred, or Fred, as friends call her.
In this version, the plucky part is played by Alexandra Gonzalez, a Tampa native and theater student at Roosevelt University in Chicago.
During the dress rehearsal, the mezzo-soprano scaled a 15-foot ladder running up the side of "20 soft, downy mattresses," plopped down and rolled around, dangling legs and arms.
"I don't need a harness. I'm fine," she was overheard saying later.
Gonzales, 19, said she has no fear of heights. In fact, being up there fulfills an ambition she has long had as a triplet.
"We had bunks, and I always wanted to be on the top," she said, displaying the same confidence and spunk as the character she plays.
Of more concern to her was that she do justice to the highly comedic role she plays.
"I was worried about doing comedy at first, but this musical has made me learn to trust my instincts," she said.
The cast is directed by Claud Smith, 48. He's a freelance creative consultant from Orlando who has masterminded theatrical productions for Disney, Busch Gardens and other theme parks. He was brought in by Betty Jane Pucci, who has been directing the group for decades.
"We had a chance to get this really great guy who's usually really busy," she said.
Smith designed the set to look like a pop-up storybook done in old-style pen and ink.
"The performers, on the other hand, are very colorful. It makes the story come alive," he said.
About half of the cast is new to City Players this year, he said. They've been rehearsing for six weeks and "are coming along very well," he said. "Because I travel a lot, it's taught me how to put together a show very quickly."
The classic-storybook look is enhanced by the skills of costume designer Marilyn Deighton of Youngstown, N.Y. She is an assistant professor at Niagara University, where she teaches costume technology.
She has previously worked in the area for various dinner and community theaters.
Deighton placed the 49 actors, ages 17 to 70-plus, in jewel tones, accented with gold and sparkles.
When Princess Winnifred emerges from the moat, she's supposed to look damp, so Deighton created a costume using sheer, multicolored tie-dyed fabric with tiny sequins "to look like water droplets from a distance."
Many of the men's costumes have been borrowed from Niagara University. One outfit came from a Broadway production.
About 25 were built from scratch, she said.
"I brought most of my shop down with me," she said.
For the uninitiated, Once Upon a Mattress tells the tale of mean Queen Aggravain, who has ruled that no one in the kingdom can marry until her son is wed.
The meddling mom really wants him by her side, so she keeps sabotaging the prospective brides.
Princess Winnifred, the 13th candidate for the prince's hand, arrives from the swamplands, refreshingly unrefined — and wet.
The queen devises a sensitivity test — a pea under 20 downy mattresses — to see if she can fall asleep.
"Any genuine princess would feel it," said the queen, played by Kate Gaudet.
But the test is not quite as foolproof as she imagines.
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