First Nighter: Hoffman, Epperson Make Merry in 'Once Upon a Mattress'

Bah humbug! to anyone who goes to the Transport Group Theatre Company's Once Upon a Mattress, at the Abrons Arts Center, and doesn't have a thoroughly entertaining time. Only Ebenezer Scrooge would leave dissatisfied.

Most of us know the leading role of Princess Winifred was initially performed by Carol Burnett, who seemed born to play it and thereby became a star. But she hasn't been the only one who fits it glove-like. Right now, we have Jackie Hoffman, who with a belt as strong as the north wind, is making the princess of the swamps her own.

Fairy tales are forever, and fractured fairy tales are, too--as is this one with music by Mary Rodgers, lyrics by Marshall Barer and book by Jay Thompson, Dean Fuller and Barer. Here, a minstrel (Hunter Ryan Herdlicka) explains that, as it's usually recounted, the tale of the princess, the pea and disturbed sleep isn't quite accurate.

According to him, the princess--that would be Winifred (Fred for short)--was beauty-challenged. Neither was princely Prince Dauntless (Jason SweetTooth Williams), her counterpart, a mirror's best friend. Worse, he was dominated by a mother, Queen Aggravain (John "Lypsinka" Epperson), determined to make certain no applicant damsel would be good enough for her son.

Complicating matters was the kingdom ordinance that none of the citizen ladies could marry until the prince did, throwing a monkey wrench into the plans of Lady Larken (Jessica Fontana) and Sir Harry (Zak Resnick). Moreover, King Sextimus (David Greenspan) couldn't say much about it, because he was silent.

We all also know things come out more than okay after the princess passes the pea-under-20-mattresses test Queen Aggravain forces Winifred to undergo, but they don't turn up sunny until any number of tuneful songs have been sung and any number of lively dances (Scott Rink, the choreographer here) have been danced.

Transport artistic director Jack Cummings III guided the shebang through to this extremely gratifying status. As the company's fans know, Cummngs has a penchant for finding the right site-specific location. For Once Upon a Mattress, his idea of the correct spot is on a traditional proscenium stage.

In other words, he gives the revival a sparkly off-Broadway musical sheen. The budget isn't Broadway-huge, but it's big enough for Kathryn Rohe to design colorful costumes, not the least of them the outfits for Epperson's Queen. A crinkly deep-blue wrap even gets applause. Then there's the 12-strong orchestra that Matt Castle conducts for uptown liveliness.

Furthermore, the cast is chockablock with first-rate singer-dancers. Perhaps the best-known song from the every-song-a-charmer score is Winifred's "Shy." Hoffman wrings and zings all the hilarity contained in it--and Rink's accompanying choreography is nothing less than inspired.

It's no surprise that Hoffman, who's proved an indispensible character actor in musicals for some time (Hairspray, On the Town, Xanadu), is victorious as the central character. She brings plenty to the part. She may have even inserted a funny line into the script. When Winifred is unable to fall asleep atop those mattresses, she says something that clearly wasn't in the initial script. Someone added it for this viewing, I suspect, and it very well could be the off-the-cuff funny Hoffman. (Usually at this time of year, Hoffman is doing her laugh-out-loud Hanukkah show. Thanks to her for taking this wonderful break.)

As Queen Aggravain--doesn't the name sound like a prescription drug?--Epperson appears in Lypsinka's Joan Crawford 1950s mode. He's all eyes, pointed nose, florid mouth, crooked hands, long legs. Of course, he speaks here in rib-tickling imperious tones. He does lip-synch twice, and it's unmissable. Also remember that Epperson has walked fashion runways in his career and so knows how to carry himself about in those Rohe ensembles.

Hoffman and Epperson as well as the ubiquitous Greenspan are giving the patrons what they expect to see. So are familiar players Jay Rogers as the Queen's accommodating wizard, who eventually spills the beans about the pea, and Herdlicka, whose clarion voice offers its share of thrills.

Among those less well known are Fontana and Reznick as the young lovers handed the straightforward romantic ballads "In a Little While" and "Yesterday I Loved You." Their silvery renditions guarantee them heavy response in this production and suggest more to come elsewhere.

There are, however, two cast members newer to local stages. The Jester, often hanging out with The Minstrel, is Cory Lingner. He's amusing at whatever he does until, that is, he's given an act-two in-one showing. The song is "Very Soft Shoes" and has almost nothing to do with the plot. What it has to do with is introducing a major new dancer to tuner audiences. At first, Lindner is reminiscent of Ray Bolger but then becomes much more classically balletic. The adjective "astonishing" is apt.

Hardly last is Williams, known to this writer as one of tunesmith Joe Iconis's stable of hot warblers. Who would have guessed that the plump, round-faced Williams was such an endearing actor? Obviously loving his chance to be let loose on stage, he makes Prince Dauntless a fellow for whom only the best will suffice--i. e., Princess Winifred. Williams is the kind of guy people write shows for. Perhaps the prolific Iconis already has.

Once Upon a Mattress is further enhanced, not only by R. Lee Kennedy's lighting and Walter Trarbach's sound, but also by Andrew Lazarow's projections. In turn, Lazarow's projections are enhanced by Ken Tallin's illustrations, which are additionally seen at other times during the two-plus hours. Tallin, who's taken up where Al Hirschfeld and Sam Norkin left off, is yet another welcome element in this more than welcome look back at Once Upon a Mattress.

Incidentally, thanked in the program for their contributions are Adam Guettel and the Guettel family. Adam Guettel is, of course, the third generation Rodgers family composer. Carol Burnett is also included in the list. Hearty gratitude to them all for whatever they did to make this a must-see enterprise.