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Children Will Listen 

by MICHAEL BOWEN & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & R & lt;/span & oger Welch's production of Once Upon a Mattress (at Coeur d'Alene Summer Theatre through Aug. 2) is silly enough for the kids and smart enough for the grownups. But that's such clich & eacute;: "suitable for all ages." How does a middle-aged guy really know if this "Princess and the Pea" musical holds any appeal for children? By consulting someone who's an expert on the matter. Someone who's 11.





A critic's daughter, it turns out, has learned over the years to deliver critical pronouncements of her own. Kylie's "third favorite character" in Mattress -- we'll get to the first two later -- was "the king, because he doesn't say anything." (Jack Bannon's King Sextimus the Silent has been put under a spell of muteness. Little girls feel strongly that their parents should be seen but not heard.)





As for her favorite tune from the show, she can only ask, "What were the songs again?" Exactly. Despite composer Mary Rodgers being the daughter of that fellow who wrote a couple of shows with Hammerstein, none of the songs in Mattress are especially memorable. (Steven Dahlke's 16-piece orchestra, however, provides pleasant accompaniment.)





"Shy" held particular appeal, mostly because it's belted out by Kat Ramsburg as Winnifred, the unlucky 13th candidate to become the prince's wife. She's just stumbled into the castle, drenched from taking a most unprincesslike route into the royal presence -- "You swam the moat?" the incredulous queen keeps asking -- and it soon becomes clear that Ramsburg's Winnifred is anything but shy.





Instead, she's full of aggressive self-assertion, and my little girl got the message: A princess, says Kylie, "should have some sensitivity. But I don't just wanna be this sensitive little delicate twit."





Princess Winnifred was her favorite character: "I would like to be like her, but any princess wouldn't want to be proper all the time." Responding, then, to Ramsburg's mix of delicacy and self-reliance: That's my girl.





As the love interest, Craig Heider's Prince Dauntless came in at No. 2 -- "just because he likes her." Not to press too hard on the feminist angle of Mattress -- you'd only find fluff, anyway -- but I was liking my daughter's men-on-the-periphery attitude.





She was alert to androgyny, too, asking, "Why are all the guys wearing dresses?" And a male chorus in pastel medieval tunics does take some getting used to. (Credit Judith and Michael McGiveney for conjuring a fairy-tale atmosphere with their costumes, backdrops and set pieces.) With its swaggering Princess Fred and flouncing, misnamed Prince Dauntless, Once Upon a Mattress wants to explore the edges of gender roles.





During the second-act father-son discussion about the birds and the bees ("Man to Man Talk"), my preteen daughter sat curled up in her theater seat, giggling and scoffing, wanting to hear more about wedding nights but snickering over dumb references to storks that everyone knows don't exist. The creepy discomfort, the appealing innocence -- she caught it all. (The song's not much, but Bannon was up there gesticulating comically for all he was worth. As the much-daunted Prince Dauntless, Heider overdoes the fluttery wimpiness; at least his voice is impressive and strong.)





There were aspects of the CdA Mattress that Kylie missed, of course -- for example, the sit-up-and-listen voice of Jadd Davis as the Minstrel. (She kept mixing him up with Robby French's Jester. But Davis was truly outstanding.) Still, she took one look at the entertaining bickering between Sir Harry (Dane Stokinger, all Dudley Do-Right) and Lady Larken (Kendal Hartse, anxious to hold onto her man) and dismissed them as "just children." She picked up on the love-to-hate-her villainy of Amy Ross's annoying Queen Aggravain, who despises her own husband: "His wife is angry. I think it must have been an arranged marriage, because she thinks he's stupid and says she made a stupid choice." In the midst of a musical comedy, then, a portrait of an unhappy marriage and a Sondheim moment: "Careful the things you do, children will listen."





Lots of adults in this show (and in life) may act like children, but there are still things here for kids to hang onto. In musicals like Mattress, the choruses sing and dance and cooperate, and scheming people get their comeuppance, and a woman can be self-assertive, and a man can get in touch with his sensitive side. Corny? Maybe. But going to musicals, when I was a kid, was part of a lot of people's education.





At one point, Prince Dauntless -- whose Mommy has kept him from marriage all these years -- stamps his feet upon being told to go to bed and declares, "I'm 36 years old, and I can stay up late if I want." Once Upon a Mattress is about making the right decisions -- always a good reminder for adults -- but it's also about growing up. And that's good for our kids.

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