In many ways, ONCE UPON A MATTRESS, which opened at the Phoenix Theatre on Second Avenue in 1959 and quickly moved to Broadway, was one of the last old-fashioned musical comedies. It has lots of delightful songs (music Mary Rodgers; lyrics Marshall Barer), great opportunities for comic actors and actresses (it was Carol Burnett's first musical), a romantic couple to sing ballads, a show-stropping number for a good dancer, and a silly plot based on "The Princess and the Pea." Like many old-fashioned musicals, the songs and the comic turns were the main reason for going. The show wasn't a great success (244 performances), but was given a complete television production as a vehicle for Carol Burnett. Since then it has been a staple of high school and community theatre productions. It was revived on Broadway in the 1990s for Sarah Jessica Parker, who proved to be underpowered for the lead.
The two principal reasons for the Transport Group Theatre Company revival at the Abrons Arts Center were Jackie Hoffman and drag artist John "Lypsinka" Epperson. Their performances are side-splittingly hilarious. Hoffman, who reminds us of the great Nancy Walker, is a tiny, rubber-faced comedienne who happens to have a giant, very good singing voice. Like Carol Burnett, Hoffman is a great clown. Like the great Broadway comics of the Golden Age, she is inimitable, with her own distinctive personality and bag of tricks. She made an hilarious Princess Winifred from the swamp kingdom. As the evil queen, Epperson gave a grand, camp performance full of hilarious leers and poses. My husband likened it to Kabuki. They were surrounded by a cast filled with talented Broadway veterans. The handsome, brainless romantic leads, Jessica Fontana and Zak Resnick, were properly zany and sang beautifully. Cory Lingner, the Jester, danced up a storm and got a big ovation for his second act number. Hunter Ryan Herdlicka, the minstrel-narrator, sang beautifully and performed with great charm. The rest of the ensemble and chorus were excellent as was the full-size band. The staging (Jack Cummings III) reminded me of old-time Broadway with some scenes played "in one" -- front of a curtain while set pieces were changed behind. The choreography (Scott Rink) was serviceable. Sandra Goldmark's simple sets were all the smallish stage could hold and Ken Fallin's "illustrations", projected on the backdrop, were very clever. From the second row, the costumes looked like old stuff from a costume rental house--except for Epperson's grand drag--but the audience didn't go for spectacle. We went for a delightful, old-fashioned musical with excellent performances. Most of all, we went for Jackie Hoffman and John Epperson, who make this version of ONCE UPON A MATTRESS a must-see event for lovers of musicals.
ONCE UPON A MATTRESS. Abrons Arts Center. January 2, 2016.