Jackie Hoffman is the only person she knows who’s never until now performed in a production of the musical comedy “Once Upon A Mattress,” the comic retelling of the fairy tale The Princess and the Pea that made a star out of Carol Burnett.
“Once Upon A Mattress,” on the other hand, was the very first show in which John Epperson performed as a freshman in college, which helped hook him on musical theater, eventually leading to the creation of his drag persona, Lypsinka.
Jackie Hoffman as Princess Winnifred and Lypsinka as her evil future mother-in-law Queen Aggravain are the main draws for the Transport Group Theater Company’s inspired production of this well-worn musical, which has now opened at the Abrons Arts Center.
The elastic-faced Hoffman, who has been an increasingly visible character actor, singer and comedienne in New York over the past 15 years – most recently playing four different parts in On The Town – has finally gotten a leading role she’s long deserved. It is one that seems custom made for her to chew up and spit out: Indeed, when we first see her, she is striking a heroic pose in wet clothes until she suddenly spits out a mouthful of water. “I swam the moat,” she explains. This woman can just stand still and stare up at the towering Queen, and it’s hilarious. Her rendition of “I’m Shy,” belted out with nuclear force, is a highlight of the season.
There are other charms to this production, which is directed by Jack Cummings III, artistic director of the Transport Group. A 12-piece orchestra plays the fun and tuneful score by Mary Rodgers, which marked this composer’s Broadway debut. A cast of first-rate comic pros executes the daffy plot, about the Queen’s efforts to keep her son unmarried by creating royalty tests that are impossible for any would-be princess to pass – until the very un-princess-like Princess Winnifred comes onto the scene. The set design employs theater illustrator Ken Fallin in a novel way; his drawings form the backdrops for every scene, each of which he completes (sketching in the water to a water fountain, or roses in a vase) in real time as we watch, his magnified hand visible in the projection.
Given all the goodies, it is easier to forgive the ways the musical is dated, but not possible to overlook. “Once Upon A Mattress” debuted on Broadway in 1959, the same year as the introduction of the first Doris Day/Rock Hudson movie as well as of the princess phone. A running time of 150 minutes has become too long for what is essentially sketch comedy. (Try dialing a rotary phone now that we’re used to touch-tone.) And, as good as their performances are, the wink and nudge humor is far less funny than it once must have been in such numbers as “Man to Man,” when the mute King Sextimus (David Greenspan) pantomimes the lesson of the birds and the bees to his fully grown schlemiel of a son Prince Dauntless (Jason Sweet Tooth Williams.) Lypsinka elegantly camping it up as the emasculating Queen, whose very red lips sparkle with malice, helps laugh off a character that is surprisingly misogynistic in a musical by a female composer who served as a role model for those to follow.
Mary Rodgers, who died last year, was the daughter of composer Richard Rodgers, and the mother of composer Adam Guettel, and good friend and collaborator with Stephen Sondheim, who has told the story of how he interrogated her about marriage in order to create his musical “Company.” Would it be too much of a stretch to suppose she also influenced Sondheim in creating “Into The Woods,” another musical that subverts the classic fairy tale for our entertainment?
Please click on any photograph by Carol Rosegg to see it enlarged
Once Upon a Mattress
At Abrons Arts Center
Music by Mary Rodgers; Lyrics by Marshall Barer;
Book by Jay Thompson, Dean Fuller, and Marshall Barer
Cast: Jackie Hoffman and John “Lypsinka” Epperson
Jessica Fontana (Cinderella) as Lady Larken, David Greenspan (The Patsy) as The King, Hunter Ryan Herdlicka (A Little Night Music) as The Minstrel, Cory Lingner (On the Town) as The Jester, Zak Resnick (Piece of My Heart) as Sir Harry, Jay Rogers (Howard Crabtree’s When Pigs Fly) as The Wizard, and Jason SweetTooth Williams (Things to Ruin ) as Prince Dauntless, with Vivienne Cleary, Richard Costa, Michael De Souza, Tim Dolan, Jack Donahue, Amy Griffin, Sarah Killough, Kristen Michelle, Ali Reed, and Doug Shapiro.
Directed by Jack Cummings III
Scenic design by Sandra Goldmark
Lighting design by R. Lee Kennedy
Costume design by Kathryn Rohe
Sound design by Walter Trarbach
Musical staging and choreography by Scott Rink
Musical direction by Matt Castle
New orchestrations by Frank Galgano and Matt Castle
Casting by Nora Brennan Casting
Live drawings by Ken Fallin
Running time: two and a half hours, including one intermission.
Tickets: $45 to $75
Once Upon A Mattress is scheduled to run through January 3, 2016.