Wednesday, December 16, 2015

120. Review: ONCE UPON A MATTRESS (seen December 15, 2015)

“Grand Street Follies”

The rich, 100-year history of Grand Street’s Harry De Jur Playhouse (formerly the Neighborhood Playhouse), at the Henry Street Settlement’s Abrons Arts Center, just got a bit richer with the Transport Group’s spirited revival of the 1959 musical ONCE UPON A MATTRESS. The original production of this spoofy, goofy retelling of Hans Christian Andersen’s children’s story, “The Princess and the Pea,” opened at Off Broadway’s Phoenix Theatre in 1959, moved to Broadway soon after for a 244-performance run, and made a star of Carol Burnett as the ugly duckling, wannabe bride, Princess Winnifred.
Hunter Ryan Herdlicka, Corey Lingner. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
ONCE UPON A MATTRESS belongs to the category of fairy tale-like musicals set in medieval worlds (like CAMELOT, A CONNECTICUT YANKEE IN KING ARTHUR’S COURT, INTO THE WOODS, CINDERELLA, PIPPIN, SPAMALOT, SHREK, and so on). In a pea shell, it tells of how the ultra-controlling Queen Aggravain (John “Lypsinka” Epperson) does all she can to prevent her naïve son, Prince Dauntless (Jason SweetTooth Williams), from getting married, which means no one else in the kingdom can marry either. The situation is especially dire for the beautiful Lady Larken (Jessica Fontana, quite good) and her swain, the handsome Sir Harry (Zak Resnick, suitably self-centered), because she’s pregnant. (Their duets, “In a Little While” and “Yesterday I Love You” are very well sung.) The queen's impossible tests have caused 13 eligible princesses to fail in their quest to marry the prince; she now comes up with a new test for the brash, open-hearted, funny-looking Princess Winnifred (Jackie Hoffman, ON THE TOWN), who wins Dauntless’s love when she sings of “The Swamps of Home.” Twenty mattresses are piled high and a pea is stashed at its bottom. If “Fred” (the name Winnifred prefers to be called) fails this “sensitivity” test by falling asleep despite the pea, the marriage is off. Guess what happens.
John "Lypsinka" Epperson, Jackie Hoffman, and company. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Director Jack Cummings III and choreographer Scott Rink have given a creative jolt to an excellent company of 19 (and a pit orchestra of 13 conducted by Matt Castle). This sizable ensemble is led by Hoffman’s winning Winnifred and Epperson’s show-stealing Aggravain. Hoffman, a petite, bespectacled, comedienne-singer, whose face is the obverse of Angelina Jolie’s, can belt a song the way Yoenis Cespedes hits a baseball. When, after swimming a filthy moat to reach the castle, she sings that she’s “Shy,” holding back demurely until she opens that cave of a mouth to hit the title word, you’ll wish you’d brought your ear plugs along. Funny as she often is, she lacks Burnett’s unique zaniness and facial flexibility (Burnett was more than twice as young as Ms. Hoffman, who’s 55, when she first played the part), but she handles her several songs with both big-voiced power and melodic sweetness.
Jackie Hoffman and company. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Burnett’s performance as Winnifred is available on YouTube in two separate productions, a black and white one from 1964, and a color one from 1972. So is her 2005 performance as the benignly wicked queen, a role traditionally taken by a woman but in the current production by a renowned drag queen, Mr. Epperson, who plays the conniving monarch with every ounce of glammed-up campiness you can squeeze into a series of deliciously overdesigned gowns. With his commanding size, enhanced by spiked heels, Mr. Epperson towers over several of his height-challenged costars, especially David Greenspan as the silent King Septimus, Jay Rogers as the showbizzy Wizard, and, of course, Ms. Hoffman; his manner of playing directly to the audience with winking canniness at his queenly machinations makes it nearly impossible to look elsewhere when he’s on stage. Observe how he applauds by tapping his fingertips together, how he marches off with one royal hand held before him like something from an Egyptian tomb drawing, or how he gives his vowels a hopefully posh accent, saying “mottress” for “mattress,” for example.
Jason SweetTooth Williams, John "Lypsinka" Epperson, Zak Resnick. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Among the memorable supporting performances are Mr. Williams’s chubby, bearded, warmly lovable doofus of a Prince Dauntless, and Mr. Greenspan’s mute King (cursed by a witch), who, for someone I’ve never seen do musical comedy, is surprisingly deft. Hunter Ryan Herdlicka sings nicely as the Minstrel, and Cory Lingner is a genial song and dance Jester, with an old-fashioned solo dance number, “In Very Soft Shoes,” that, while well done, seems extraneous (as do one or two other numbers).
Doug Shapiro, Jason SweetTooth Williams, Jay Rogers, John "Lypsinka" Epperson, Ali Reed, Corey Lingner, Richard Costa, Tim Dolan. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Despite the lack of any songs that have become standards, Rodgers and Barer’s score is consistently amusing and listenable, far more so than many highly touted recent shows. The book, however, has too many minor diversions, and there’s not quite enough wit to sustain what is, after all, a rather innocuous narrative for a grown-up audience.
Jessica Fontana, Zak Resnick. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Mary Rodgers’s music and Marshall Barer’s lyrics retain much of the comical brio that’s made the show a perennial favorite among school and amateur groups. That may partly be because, while sex plays a role in Jay Thompson, Dean Fuller, and Marshall Barer’s book, the dialogue and lyrics avoid smuttiness, even in the ingenious “Man to Man Talk” number, in which the mute king, communicating with gestures, teaches his childishly innocent adult son the facts of life.
Corey Lingner, David Greenspan, Hunter Ryan Herdlicka. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Working on what must be a restricted budget, Sandra Goldmark has created a simple unit set of slender metal archways backed by a projection screen on which Ken Fallin’s cartoony sketches (to which the artist’s hand is seen adding finishing touches) establish each scene. R. Lee Kennedy’s lighting is cheery enough and Kathryn Rohe’s costumes are colorful, especially the grandiose ones worn by the queen; some of the men’s, though, look a bit makeshift.
Jackie Hoffman and company. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
At a somewhat overlong two hours and 25 minutes, ONCE UPON A MATTRESS isn’t a great show, but it’s cute, sprightly, and more charming than you might expect. Strangely, there were very few youngsters present when I went, but, even with Mr. Epperson’s presence, this remains a family musical and one that, despite the absence of Christmas trappings, would make a holiday visit worth considering.  
Jackie Hoffman. Photo: Carol Rosegg.


Henry De Jur Playhouse/Abrons Arts Center
466 Grand Street, NYC
Through January 3