Sleeping Beauty Wakes… And Falls in Love with Man with Narcolepsy!

There is nothing I love more than musicals, so I was thrilled to hear about a new one set in a SLEEP CLINIC! “Sleeping Beauty Wakes” at McCarter Theater Center in Princeton, NJ is the story of fairy-tale Sleeping Beauty (named Rose) waking up in a modern-day sleep disorder clinic. 
The clinic’s other patients include a person with sleep apnea, restless leg syndrome, a sleep-walker and an individual with night terrors.  The clinic is run by an over-worked female sleep doctor, assisted by an “Orderly” who has a sleep disorder himself – narcolepsy with cataplexy!

Production Photo by T. Charles Erickson

I am so excited this musical features a main character with narcolepsy and cataplexy.  It seems that the character’s cataplexy is featured prominently – with feelings of happiness leaving the Orderly collapsing to the ground – something I can relate to (see A Dreamy Valentine’s Day Post). 

However, the portrayal may not be entirely accurate or sensitive. Here are a few reviewers’ descriptions.

The New York Times writes:
“Instead of a polished prince, her savior is a hospital orderly, Mike (Bryce Ryness), with some challenging afflictions of his own, namely a neuropathological combo plate of narcolepsy and cataplexy that has him tumbling to the floor unconscious whenever he feels a surge of happiness.”
(See: “A Fairy Tale, Updated Without Ambien” by Charles Isherwood, NY Times, May 23, 2011.)

Another reporter describes:

“Aiding the doctor is an orderly who suffers from a form of narcolepsy himself and, when experiencing strong emotions, will abruptly drop to the floor, paralyzed, often to comic effect.” (See: “‘Sleeping Beauty Wakes’ shines with spectacular music” by C. W. Wood, Asbury Park Press, May 17, 2011.)

These descriptions confused me. Cataplexy is a temporary paralysis of voluntary muscles, often brought on by emotions. Yet, one remains conscious (not unconscious as the NY Times suggests). Also, I am unsure how someone abruptly dropping to the floor – paralyzed – has a comic effect on the audience?

A full collapse of cataplexy looks a lot like an epileptic seizure. For me, such an episode may last between 30 seconds to a minute – during which time I unable to speak, open my eyes, lift a finger or wiggle a toe. Being conscious inside a paralyzed body is a very chilling trapped experience.

I find a lot of humor in living with narcolepsy, but I’m not sure about using cataplexy as comic relief. Call me Scrooge, but I haven’t heard of any hilarious portrayals of epileptic seizures or the paralysis associated with other illnesses such as strokes, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), or multiple sclerosis.

I have not seen the musical yet so only know third-hand information from reviewers. However, as I write this, I am struggling to reconcile my personal experience of cataplexy with the more light-hearted fairy-tale version described by the reviewers of “Sleeping Beauty Wakes.” For those in the Princeton, NJ area who are able to attend, let me know what you think!

Also, I would love to get the perspective of the actor, Bryce Ryness, playing the character with narcolepsy. I wonder how he prepared for the role and if his understanding of narcolepsy has shifted through this experience.

In conclusion, I believe this musical will raise awareness about narcolepsy (a neurological disorder of the sleep/wake cycle affecting 200,000-250,000 Americans) and cataplexy (a symptom of narcolepsy characterized by a sudden loss of muscle tone/temporary paralysis of voluntary muscles). The production’s website features a “Context Section” with great basic info about sleep and dreaming, including a glossary of terms.

I do fear that a possible comical portrayal of cataplexy may perpetuate the stereotype of narcolepsy as a point of humor rather than a serious illness. I guess it’s important to remember: a fairytale may be set in modern times, but that doesn’t mean it’s reality. At the end of the day, fairytales are still just fairytales. And in this one, the person with narcolepsy turns out to be Prince Charming and wins over Sleeping Beauty. Now that’s something I can applaud!

For more about the production: visit “Sleeping Beauty Wakes” Official Website.
For more about narcolepsy: visit Stanford’s Center for Narcolepsy Website.


  1. Bentley on May 25, 2011 at 11:51 am

    Nice post. I appreciate the debunking and also the explanations of what's actually happening when someone is experiencing catapelxy.

    Collapsing generally has, strangely, often been attached to being a humorous moment (eg fainting, the vulcan death grip, etc.), and as a symptom of narcolpsy it has been drawn on for comic relief, which is odd and troubling. I guess this play captures that stereotype.

    I think your conclusion though is well balanced: fairytales are still just fairytales. While they may propagate certain stereotype, it is just a play and can be enjoyed for what it is.

  2. Melissa on May 25, 2011 at 2:37 pm

    Interesting concept for a musical…but troubling that it may in fact reinforce incorrect perceptions about narcolepsy. Will you report back to your readers if you are able to connect with any of the actors? Or maybe you could contact the writer(s)? It would be interesting to know if any of them have personal connections to people with sleep disorders.

  3. Gail on May 25, 2011 at 6:56 pm

    I would like to see the play with you and write a review together we can submit to the newspapers and if necessary Pickett the show 's portrayal of narcolepsy as something funny as they did in a Mad Mad world with Mr. Bean.

  4. Scott on May 28, 2011 at 1:10 am

    Very interesting to hear your view on it. I appreciate that your opinion is nuanced and not solely a condemnation of what sounds like a pretty stereotypical portrayal of Narcolepsy.

  5. Made by Michelle on May 31, 2011 at 1:58 pm

    Hi, new follower! Someone linked to your blog in a FB support group I'm in (I have narcolepsy too).

    I think Bentley is right, that collapsing or falling down is often used as comic relief. It's a shame that it sounds like they're using cataplexy in this way when they could be educating people about how serious it is. I'll be interested to read your thoughts on the play if you see it.


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