'Once Upon a Mattress': Theater Review

Courtesy of Carol Rosegg
Jackie Hoffman and cast in 'Once Upon a Mattress'
Not so much for the kiddies.
1/3/2016

Jackie Hoffman and John Epperson, better known as "Lypsinka," star in this off-Broadway revival of Mary Rodgers' venerable musical based on 'The Princess and the Pea.'

The casting is the concept for the Transport Group Theatre Company's revival of this old chestnut, which has been showcased in no less than three television productions since its 1959 off-Broadway premiere. Starring 55-year-old Jackie Hoffman as a not-so-young Princess Winnifred (the role that made a 26-year-old Carol Burnett famous), and a cross-dressing John "Lypsinka" Epperson as Queen Aggravain, this is a decidedly edgier and campier Once Upon a Mattress than usual.

There's a definite "Let's put on a show" quality to this modest production, presented at the historic Abrons Art Center on Manhattan's Lower East Side. The costumes are threadbare, although Epperson models a few enjoyably outlandish creations. The sets are almost nonexistent, with a video screen displaying a giant close-up of a hand drawing scenic backdrops live during the performance, a device that's more distracting than charming. And the small stage can barely contain the surprisingly large ensemble.

On the other hand, there's a full, albeit overamplified, orchestra of 13 musicians, and the performers display an undeniably infectious enthusiasm.

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Featuring music by the late Mary Rodgers (daughter of Richard), the show is an expanded adaptation of the Hans Christian Anderson fairy tale The Princess and the Pea. Set in a mythical 15th century kingdom, it concerns the search for a suitable princess for the hapless Prince Dauntless (played by the deliciously named Jason SweetTooth Williams). The matter is of pressing urgency to the lovely Lady Larken (Jessica Fontana), who is pregnant by Sir Harry (Zak Resnick), the preeminent knight of the realm, but is unable to marry him because of the queen's decree that no one in the kingdom is to marry until her son does.

Enter Winnifred, who, seeking to get a leg up on the competition, enters the kingdom looking like a drowned rat after swimming the moat. The ungainly princess is definitely not considered a suitable match for her son by the queen (but then again, no one is good enough for mommy's little treasure). She sets out to sabotage this final candidate's chances by wickedly devising a "sensitivity" test of Winnifred's ability to sleep on a bed of 20 mattresses atop a tiny pea.

Observing the action is the mute King Sextimus (David Greenspan), who communicates through games of Charades; a Minstrel (Hunter Ryan Herdlicka), who lightheartedly narrates; and the Minstrel's sidekick, a Jester (Cory Lingner).

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It's a thin, silly story to fuel a two-and-a-half hour musical, and the antic book by Jay Thompson, Dean Fuller and Marshall Barer features more than a few groan-worthy gags. The score, too, is unmemorable, with only Winnifred's disingenuous comic number, "Shy," making much of an impression. But assuming you're in the right mood, the show is fun nonetheless, and this production, exuberantly directed by Jack Cummings III, is ultimately hard to resist.

Hoffman — a Broadway mainstay with such shows as On the Town, Hairspray, The Addams Family and Xanadu to her credit — is a deliciously daffy Winnifred. She uses her expert comic timing and nasal vocal delivery to make her character's desperation hilariously palpable, while throwing in a few choice jokes obviously of her own creation. Epperson (essentially playing an audible version of the Hollywood diva archetypes he has long portrayed in his hit lip-synching shows) is a hoot, capable of bringing down the house with a single malevolent, Joan Crawford-style glare. (The strapping Epperson staring down at the diminutive Hoffman is a sight gag all by itself.)

The paunchy, bespectacled Williams (Hoffman also wears glasses) is an amusingly atypical prince; Herdlicka (seen on Broadway in A Little Night Music) is a charming Minstrel; and LIngner, making his off-Broadway debut, fairly stops the show with his fabulous solo song-and-dance number, "Very Soft Shoes."

This acerbically funny version of Once Upon a Mattress will probably be better enjoyed by adults than the younger audiences to whom the show is usually targeted. But that's nothing to complain about in a holiday season when you can't throw a rock without hitting a Rockette, an Elf or, more in the spirit of this production, a Grinch.   

Venue: Abrons Arts Center, New York
Cast: Jackie Hoffman, John "Lypsinka" Epperson, Jessica Fontana, David Greenspan, Hunter Ryan Herdlicka, Cory Lingner, Zak Resnick, Jay Roges, Jason SweetTooth Wiliams
Music: Mary Rodgers
Lyrics: Marshall Barer
Book: Jay Thompson, Dean Fuller, Marshall Barer
Director: Jack Cummings III
Set designer: Sandra Goldmark

Costume designer: Kathryn Rohe
Lighting designer: R. Lee Kennedy
Sound designer: Walter Trarbach
Musical staging & choreographer: Scott Rink
Presented by Transport Group Theatre Company

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