Music by Mary Rodgers, Lyrics by Marshall Barer, Book by Jay Thompson, Dean Fuller and Marshall Barer; Directed by Jack Cummings III
Produced by Transport Group Theatre Company
Off Broadway, Musical Revival
Runs through 1.3.16
Abrons Arts Center, 466 Grand Street
by Regina Robbins on 12.13.16
Jackie Hoffman in Once Upon A Mattress. Photo by Carol Rosegg.
BOTTOM LINE: It's not the greatest musical ever written, but its stars, supporting cast, and creative team deliver a near-flawless production of this silly, sassy, modern fairy tale.
All hail Jackie Hoffman! The New York native may be the most beloved stage actress you’ve never heard of. Despite being diminutive, unglamorous, and just a wee bit nuts, Hoffman has carved out a career in show business through sheer force of will and talent. After many years in comedy and off Broadway, Hoffman made the leap to Broadway in the original cast of Hairspray, where she stole every scene she was in; she followed that with roles in Xanadu and The Addams Family. At last, in middle age, she has been promoted to leading lady as Princess Winnifred in the late-‘50s musical Once Upon A Mattress.
This is the show that launched the career of Carol Burnett, another oddball comic actress, and it’s what you might call “execution dependent”—performed well and it’s a delightful trifle; performed badly and, well… Luckily, Transport Group has assembled the highest-caliber cast imaginable for their downtown production. Joining Hoffman is John Epperson, a drag performer better known as Lypsinka, who is an out-and-out riot as Queen Aggravain, a royal bully who professes to want to find a princess to marry her son, Prince Dauntless (Jason SweetTooth Williams), but repeatedly devises “tests” the candidates can’t possibly pass. To make things worse, the queen has decreed that until the prince has wed, no one else in the kingdom may do so, leading to a lot of very frustrated knights and ladies-in-waiting. Enter Winnifred, wearing a raggedy fuschia gown, high-top sneakers and a thick pair of glasses. The queen’s horrified, the prince is smitten, and the rest of court crosses its fingers that this princess will finally pass the test.
Based on the Hans Christian Andersen story “The Princess and the Pea,” Once Upon A Mattress is less like a fairy tale and more like the sassy workplace sex comedies that were so popular when it was written. In spite of this, it contains a message of female empowerment: the decidedly unfeminine Winnifred can still be a princess, and win the love of a prince, without having to change. (Mary Rodgers was one of very few women composers back in the day; no doubt she understood the desire to step outside of typical female roles and find acceptance.) Hoffman is predictably effective in her broader comedic scenes, but she also nails “Happily Ever After,” in which Princess “Fred” compares herself to other fairy tale women and wonders why she has no supernatural assistance: “Cinderella had outside help / I've got no one but me / Fairy godmother, godmother, godmother, where can you be?” If that’s not the lament of the modern woman, what is?
A supporting cast full of first-rate singer/actors carries us through the two-plus hours of Once Upon A Mattress so effortlessly it feels like the time just speeds by. The very basic set design is augmented by projections that are drawn and animated live (by artist Ken Fallin), making the show seem like a coloring book come to life (albeit a cheeky, suggestive coloring book). Director Jack Cummings III can apparently handle any material, having previously helmed the completely dissimilar (but also excellent) Three Days to See earlier this season; he does exactly what one should do with this piece—keeps it light and keeps it moving. Thanks to him and his colleagues at the Transport Group, we have a fun downtown theater option for the holidays, and Jackie Hoffman gets her star turn at last. Wishes do come true!
(Once Upon A Mattress plays at Abrons Arts Center, 466 Grand Street, through January 3, 2015. Performances are Tuesdays through Fridays at 7:30; Saturdays and Sundays at 2 and 7:30. Performance schedule adjustments for holidays: Only one performance Sunday Dec 20 at 3; Additional performances on Wednesday Dec 23 and 30 at 2; No performances Dec 24, 25, 31, and Jan 1. Tickets are $59-$79 and are available at transportgroup.org or by calling 212.598.0400.)
Once Upon A Mattress is composed by Mary Rodgers with lyrics by Marshall Barer and book by Jay Thompon, Dean Fuller and Marshall Barer. It is directed by Jack Cummings III and produced by the Transport Group Theatre Company. Scenic Design is by Sandra Goldmark. Costume Design is by Kathryn Rohe. Lighting Design is by R. Lee Kennedy. Sound Design is by Walter Trarbach. Musical Direction is by Matt Castle. Musical Staging and Choreography is by Scott Rink. Arrangements and New Orchestrations are by Frank Galgano and Matt Castle. Once Upon A Mattress features live drawings by Ken Fallin.
The cast includes Vivienne Cleary, Richard Costa, Michael De Souza, Tim Dolan, Jack Donahue, John "Lypsinka" Epperson, Jessica Fontana, David Greenspan, Amy Griffin, Hunter Ryan Herdlicka, Jackie Hoffman, Sarah Killough, Cory Lingner, Kristen Michelle, Ali Reed, Zak Resnick, Jay Rogers, Doug Shapiro and Jason SweetTooth Williams.