John Epperson (a.k.a. Lypsinka) and Jackie Hoffman (center) with the cast of ‘Once Upon a Mattress’
Once Upon a Mattress, the quirky musical that launched the career of Carol Burnett, is once again playing New York City. The current Off-Broadway production presented by Transport Group Theatre Company at Abrons Arts Center’s Henry Street Settlement, features two legends of New York City entertainment in one candy-coated confection: actress and comedian Jackie Hoffman and drag artist royalty John “Lypsinka” Epperson. Yet, the true treat is that this production is no clash of the titans. Instead, the stars share the stage and the laughs with glee.
Directed by Jack Cummings III, the cast plays up the family friendly bawdy humor of Jay Thompson, Dean Fuller, and Marshall Barer’s book and Barer’s lyrics. They match the whimsy of their performances to the bubbly, pop-Broadway score composed by Mary Rodgers (daughter of Richard Rodgers), allowing the material to play to its own strengths—being surprisingly feminist for a musical that was both developed and first performed in the late 1950s.
The plot follows Hans Christian Andersen’s The Princess and the Pea fairly closely, but we are told that the published version of the tale got the story somewhat wrong. A doting mother who is unwilling to let her son grow into a man, Queen Aggravain (Lypsinka) creates tests that are impossible for princesses interested in marrying Prince Dauntless (Jason SweetTooth Williams) to pass. The plucky Princess Winnifred (Hoffman) falls deeply in love with Dauntless and decides to rise to the challenge and to get the man she wants, even if it means she has to do it completely on her own.
Serving sassy throwback realness in Kathryn Rohe’s chicly designed and pristinely fitted couture costumes, Lypsinka’s Aggravian blends the beloved drag persona with equal parts Agnes Moorehead as Endora in Bewitched and Lucille Ball circa I Love Lucy. The exaggerated mannerisms, the waggling fingers, the dramatic poses, the hilariously overstated facial expressions all work together to create a perfectly menacing yet entirely loveable villain. Every single detail of the characterization is attended to, which ensures that Lypsinka lands every laugh with deft skill. Likewise the audience insatiably eats from the palm of her hand every time she is on stage.
Hoffman matches Lypsinka laugh for laugh, creating an audacious Princess Winnifred that brazenly defies Queen Aggravain. Upon entering the show, Hoffman sweetly serenades the audience with the first verse of “Shy,” before boldly screeching the chorus. To be fair, the word “screeching” in a review is usually a bad sign, but Hoffman does it with such appealing character that here it deftly delights. Progressing through the jovial book and songs, Hoffman keenly balances a more classical Broadway voice and finely-tuned character singing to keep the audience laughing with her. Moreover, Hoffman’s adorably abrasive Winnifred is so perfectly imperfect in stature and physicality that the audience simply can’t help but be won over by her.
Yet, Once Upon a Mattress has always taken lumps for being too long winded. Narrated by a Minstrel (Hunter Ryan Herdlicka) who gets help from a Jester (Cory Lingner) and occasionally from the mute King Sextimus (David Greenspan), this production does the best it can with the show’s numerous in-one scenes. Herdlicka and Lingner charm the audience with vibrant vocals, winning smiles, and impressive soft shoe, but the sheer number of these vaudeville-inspired moments ultimately only serves to lengthen the production. Especially since this version uses smartly designed minimalistic sets and a projected backdrop featuring live drawings by cherished theatre-world illustrator Ken Fallin.
Despite the flaws in the material, this revival of Once Upon a Mattress offers audiences a sugar sweet experience that is not your standard Holiday fare for Americans. In fact, being presented at this time of year, it is reminiscent of the wholly entertaining British tradition of theatrical pantomime. The only thing missing is the hearty boos and hisses every time the villain enters the stage.
Once Upon a Mattress, through Jan. 3, 2016, at Transport Group Theatre Company at Abrons Arts Center, NYC.