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Once Upon a Mattress

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Jackie Hoffman
Photo by Carol Rosegg

Children (and parents) seeking more inspiring, realistic role models than those usually found in fairy tales (or today's movies and films, but I repeat myself) should be first in line for the Transport Group's revival of Once Upon a Mattress, which just opened at the Abrons Arts Center. Absolutely nothing about this wacky, malfunctioning carousel ride of a production, which has been directed by Jack Cummings III with a sharp crack of the silliness shtick, is predictable, and, against the odds, everything about it works—well, within the limits set by the show's writers, that is, but we'll get to that.

It's an evening where imperfect people reign, figuratively and literally, and offer conclusive proof (in case you need it) that each of us is entitled to a happy ending, even if we don't look or act like the figures in storybooks where this plot, popularized by Hans Christian Andersen as "The Princess and the Pea," essentially originated. And who better to prove the point for Mary Rodgers (music), Marshall Barer (lyrics and book), and Jay Thompson and Dean Fuller (book) than, among many others, Jackie Hoffman and John Epperson (more frequently known as Lypsinka), who have built their entire, impressive careers around challenging the norms and bucking the trends? They make you love them for who they are, even if you're not a die-hard fan of their chosen performance genre (full-tilt Jewish kvetching and drag, respectively).

Hoffman is Winnifred, the swamp-hick of a blueblood who's brought to the local palace as a potential bride for the getting-up-there Prince Dauntless, for whom a dozen other brides have already been rejected. (No one else in the kingdom can get married until Dauntless does.) And Hoffman could not be more in on the joke, made up (by costume designer Kathryn Rohe, wig designer Paul Huntley, and makeup designer Louis Braun) to look like everyone's royal of last resort: ratty, bobbed hair; ashen face ornamented with a permanent scowl; glasses that all but scream "spinster librarian with an attitude problem." And when she opens her mouth to declare her intentions and herself, the blare of a chalkboard-scraping voice that emerges to sing the absurdly off-point "Shy" ain't anyone's idea of dainty.

Jason SweetTooth Williams, John "Lypsinka" Epperson, and Zak Resnick
Photo by Carol Rosegg

There's no limit to how far Hoffman will go for a laugh, particularly when she hits full-rant mode upon mount the tower of mattresses that may lead Winnifred to marriage, and, per her usual, she gets every imaginable guffaw. More interesting, however, is the wounded humanity beneath: When she's treated like a maid merely because she's cleaning up her own mess from the floor, for example, Hoffman conveys every bit of the interior anguish of a woman who long ago learned to pay the price for being herself. And lurking beneath each new challenge that Winnifred must endure before claiming her supposed birthright is the hint of an acrid sigh, a tacit acknowledgment that no one traditionally pretty or well-turned-out would have to go through such things.

Queen Aggravain, who is trying to avoid marrying off son Dauntless and is setting the impossible trials for Winnifred, is Epperson's domain, and it's one he inhabits fully. Looking like an unapologetic cross between Joan Crawford and the Disney Sleeping Beauty's Queen Maleficent (fitting, as that movie, like Once Upon a Mattress, premiered in 1959), he finds gleeful joy in bulging eyes, pinched speech, and sweeping gestures mated with tokens of a miserable monarch's sneering diffidence. (The Queen's method of clapping, which involves tapping overlong fingernails as to not sully her pristine hands, is inspired.) Epperson makes her a fashion plate of evil, the sneering antagonist who's too lusciously over the top to hate.

It's just as much a conceit of Cummings's imagining that the most important support is "flawed" (by conventional standards), too, resulting in the rotund, balding, and supremely winning Jason SweetTooth Williams as Dauntless, and the reserved-distant David Greenspan as the eternally mute, pantomiming King Sextimus—both wonderful for this. (Also right is Jay Rogers as the Queen's wizard flunky, though that part is much smaller.) The pretty folk all matter the least to this telling, but Jessica Fontana and Zak Resnick (as Lady Larken and Sir Harry, the tortured court lovers desperate to wed), Hunter Ryan Herdlicka (as the narrative-nudging minstrel), and Cory Lingner (as the soft-shoeing jester), all fill their roles admirably, if unadventurously, from voice on down.

Despite everything that clicks, including Matt Castle's bouncy musical direction (he and Frank Galgano scaled down the orchestrations quite smartly, too), this Once Upon a Mattress feels lumpy for one key reason: the show itself simply isn't that good. If your Winnifred is someone like Hoffman, Carol Burnett (who created the part), or Tracey Ullman (from a TV version a decade ago), you can amuse with her expectation-defying comedy and songs (though if it's someone like Sarah Jessica Parker in the 1996 Broadway revival, it's harder). But the librettists didn't add enough bulk for the story to support a full-length (two-and-a-half-hour) show, and as a result, nearly every number, including Winnifred's, feels like filler.

The quintessential entry here is "Very Soft Shoes," in which the Jester sings of his father's show-stopping dancing prowess. You know what? It's my favorite song in the show (and Lingner makes a smash of it)—but it's completely meaningless even in the grander scheme of Act II, which seems to be to pad the evening more than Aggravain does Winnifred's bed. Most of the songs are like that; "In a Little While" and "Yesterday I Loved You" are warming, up-tempo duets for Harry and Larken, two characters you couldn't care less about. "The Minstrel, The Jester, and I" and "Man-to-Man Talk," are minor-league tours-de-force for the secondary characters (particularly the silent king), but they possess no narrative energy of their own. Dauntless's "Song of Love" at the end of Act I is delightful, if a 30-second joke stretched to five minutes in length. There's even a full-company dance called (sigh) "Spanish Panic," because... oh, who cares. At least Scott Rink's choreography, for it and the rest of the show, is lively, a fusion of fantasy and pop.

If Cummings, Hoffman, Epperson, and company have made this production an explosion of theatrical and comedic energy, their achievement isn't one for the ages only because Once Upon a Mattress isn't a show for the ages. But even grade-D titles deserve grade-A treatments, so give them credit for that. And credit Cummings (and set designer Sandra Goldmark) for the marvelous gimmick of having theatrical caricaturist Ken Fallin supply illustrated, projected fairy-tale backdrops with ornamentations he creates live during each performance, thus heightening the sense that a ragtag group of left-behinds is rewriting the rules as you watch so that they can be in the spotlight where they belong. It's exciting thinking that pays copious dividends here, even if no one convinces you that the underlying show is worth the trouble.

Once Upon a Mattress
Through January 3
Abrons Arts Center, 466 Grand Street at Pitt Street
Tickets and current performance schedule: OvationTix

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