By Daniel Dumlow
All that glitters is not gold. I have learned that the inverse is also true– All that doesn’t glitter, isn’t necessarily not not gold. Distill this rabbit-hole rhetoric down and we find that sometimes the best piece of gold isn’t shiny, flashy, expensive or massive– it’s that delightful, simple, bare-boned, and well-crafted Transport Group‘s off-Broadway revival of Once Upon A Mattress at Abrons Art Center.
Once Upon a Mattress opened off-Broadway in 1959, and quickly transferred to Broadway in 1960, starring the incomparable Carol Burnett as Princess Winnifred, a out-of-place princess in search of a prince. It follows the general plot of the fairy tale The Princess and the Pea but it takes its twists and turns creating this kids’ bedtime tale into a two-and-a-half hour musical for the stage audience of an older generation. After its two separate recordings for TV starring Burnett, It was revived on Broadway in 1996 with a definitely out-of-place Sarah Jessica Parker in the role of Princess Winnifred. And now, we have this sterling off-Broadway revival in 2015 starring a fresh, commanding, and down-right perfect, Jackie Hoffman.
Hoffman had big shoes to fill when stepping into the role, but now quite as big as the size 16 ladies heels that John
“Lypsinka” Epperson stepped into to play an extra “queeny” Queen Aggravain, a disgruntled, sour, mean mother who won’t let her son marry any princess, despite qualifications. When a new princess (Winifred) arrives via the seemingly pointless, but beautiful subplot (the same that adorns many musicals of this generation, some with more success than others) of two love-birds –pardon the pun– Lady Larkin (Jessica Fontana) and Sir Harry (Zak Resnick), The Queen with the help of a wizard (Jay Rogers) devises a plot to test her for sensitivity by placing a pea under twenty mattresses– If she sleeps well, she is no princess.
The production is as heavy-handed as a production can get. So much so that the hand is even seen on the stage. The set is masterfully drawn live by Broadway caricature artist Ken Fallin and then projected on the stage. He sits in the back of the theatre and draws the sets during the scene changes and its one of the greatest feats in project design I have ever seen. Let’s be honest; projection designs today are getting a little out of control. They begin to make the theatre feel like a ride at Disney World, but this particular design was a clever and artistic integration of classic theatre and modern conveniences.
There was no flash to this show in giant sets, special effects, or costumes, but it’s heart was big enough to warm any audience member into thinking that they had witnessed a great human experience. Comedic performances of Hoffman, Epperson, and David Greenspan’s undeniably solid performance as a mute King, reminded us of comedy of yesteryear– comedy that was not commenting on itself, or operating on a common assumption in the audience, or even simply cheap. It was comedy based in human truth and the sharing of that. And that is the most delightful experience to have in the theatre. The comedy forged this show through it’s sometimes sanguine book that alienates a modern audience, but at its aid was committed direction by Jack Cummings III, and dancing that was simply fun and just what the doctor ordered by choreographer Scott Rink.
It cannot be left unsaid that Hunter Ryan Herdlicka’s portrayal of the Minstrel was the most golden-voiced narrator we’ve seen in ages. Certainly the show is worth seeing for that plus the show-stopping “Very Soft Shoes” dance number by the Jester, portrayed with a surprising act-two turn by Cory Lingner. He dances and sings with the kind of ease and grace that wakes Gene Kelly from his grave.
This production’s fearlessness to be exactly what it is and not to try to be anything that it is not is what led it to its pure, simple two-and-a-half hours of nostalgic theatre– honoring great writing and classic comedy. It may seem like children’s theatre for adults, but what’s wrong with that? It’s got laughs, dances, drag-queens, facial contortion, sex jokes, and the heart of a child. It reminded me of what pulled me into the show business in the first place. It doesn’t mean anything extravagant, but what it says is pure in heart and soul, and definitely worth the ticket price.
Once Upon a Mattress – Book by Jay Thompson, Dean Fuller & Marshall Barer, Music by Mary Rodgers, Lyrics by Marshall Barer, Musical Staging and Choreography by Scott Rink, Directed by Jack Cummings III.
WITH:Jackie Hoffman (Princess Winnifred), John “Lypsinka” Epperson (Queen Aggravain), Jessica Fontana (Lady Larken), David Greenspan (King Sextimus), Hunter Ryan Herdlicka (the Minstrel), Cory Lingner (the Jester), Zak Resnick (Sir Harry), Jay Rogers (the Wizard) and Jason SweetTooth Williams (Prince Dauntless), and Vivienne Cleary, Richard Costa, Michael De Souza, Tim Dolan, Jack Donahue, Amy Griffin, Sarah Killough, Kristen Michelle, Ali Reed and Doug Shapiro (Ensemble).
Musical direction by Matt Castle; orchestrations by Frank Galgano and Mr. Castle; sets by Sandra Goldmark; costumes by Kathryn Rohe; lighting by R. Lee Kennedy; sound by Walter Trarbach; wigs by Paul Huntley; projections by Andrew Lazarow; scenic illustrations by Ken Fallin; properties by Christopher Kavanah; make up by Louis Braun; production stage manager, Rachel Gross; production manager, Chip Rodgers; production supervisor, Elizabeth Moreau; associate director, Francesca James. Presented by Transport Group Theater Company, Barbara Freitag, Anne L. Bernstein, Hilary and Stephen Blumenreich, Lori and Steve Fineman, Jenny and Roy Niederhoffer, Darcie and Joe Piacentile, Marcia and Roy Cohen, Nancy and Alan Friedman, Dr. Matthew Witten, Sarah Ackerman, Barbara and Andy Andres, Jamie deRoy, Benjamin D. Goldberg, Yael and Nick Jekogian, Joanna and Joshua Lipman, in association with Abrons Arts Center. Through Jan. 3 at Abrons Arts Center, 466 Grand Street, at Pitt Street, Lower East Side; 866-811-4111, abronsartscenter.org Running time: 2 hour 15 minutes.