“A princess is a delicate thing,” sweetly sings the chorus of Once Upon a Mattress, the deliciously kooky musical in performances at the Abron Arts Center on the Lower East Side. But in this revival of the 1950s musical spoof of the fairy tale “The Princess and the Pea,” this princess is anything but delicate.
Presented by the Transport Group Theatre Company and directed by Jack Cummings III, Once Upon a Mattress offers up “the true story” behind Hans Christian Anderson’s “The Princess and the Pea” which, as the narrating Minstrel (Hunter Ryan Herdlicka) and a Jester (Cory Lingner) inform us, was altered slightly from its actual events.
And those alterations are exactly what is so delightful about this musical, which stars veteran comedic actress Jackie Hoffman as Princess Winifred. With a book by Jay Thompson, Dean Fuller and Marshall Barer and lyrics by Barer, and music and lyrics by Mary Rodgers , Once Upon a Mattress rocketed Carol Burnett to stardom in 1959. But Hoffman, who is playing Winifred in this production and is already a household name in the theatre industry, is 55 years old – hardly an ingénue in the theatre world.
But playing Winifred she does, and to the rafters and beyond. Hoffman has appeared as comedic relief in Hairspray, Xanadu and On the Town and has presented comedic and sarcastic one-woman shows Off-Broadway and downtown. But this production marks her first starring role. And she sinks her teeth into it, screeching and belting (or “screlting”) songs explaining how “shy” she is, as well as peppering the script with a few jokes of her own.
Acting alongside Hoffman is drag artist royalty John “Lypsinka” Epperson as Queen Aggravain, the overprotective mother and queen of the castle. The statuesque Lypsinka seems quite comfortable in heels and a crown and gives a cool, composed and queenly (no pun intended) performance.
Aggravain is the mother of Prince Dauntless, (Jason SweetTooth Williams) and prevents her son from marrying as well as anyone else in the kingdom. (Her husband, King Sextimus, who is played by David Greenspan, is unable to voice any objections because he himself is mute and communicates through charades.)
This law causes a problem for Lady Larken (Jessica Fontana, lovely), who is pregnant with Sir Harry’s (Zak Resnick) child. As she states in the sweet song “In a Little While,” her “time is at a premium.” So Harry goes in search in of a princess who can pass the tests that Queen Aggravain presents to prospective brides, and he returns with Winifred, who immediately falls for Dauntless. But the test – of “sensitivity” – stands between them.
First seen on Broadway in 1959, Once Upon a Mattress was considered progressive and feminist for its time. And, watching it in 2015, one can appreciate that. A tomboyish princess who is unafraid to speak her mind and be herself is a fantastic thing to see on any stage and in any decade. But, in a culture of restructured fairy tales (“Frozen,” anyone?) this critic found her eyebrows raised again and again. When Larken tells Harry of her pregnancy and offers to leave the castle to preserve his reputation, he gallantly replies, “Why should we both suffer all our lives just because you had a moment of weakness?” And when Winifred laments the state of her possible matrimony in the touching song, “Happily Ever After,” she declares, “When the fairy tale ends the heroine’s always a bride… I want to get into some happily, happily ever after. I want to walk happily out of the chapel eternally tied. For I know that I’ll never live happily ever after ’til after I’m a bride!”
The musical has been criticized in the past for too long of a run time and too many production numbers, but this production moves briskly, and one of the numbers that does not advance the plot – “Very Soft Shoes” – is one of the highlights of the evening, thanks to Lingner’s spectacular dance skills.
Decked out in Kathryn Rohe’s costumes , with a backdrop featuring drawings by Ken Fallin and with a minimal set, Once Upon a Mattress is a dose of good old-fashioned musical comedy. Except for the fact that the musical’s leading lady is a 55 year old woman. That is something entirely new.