December 23, 2015

"Once Upon a Mattress" is Kind of Lumpy

With her outsized features, brassy voice and campy sensibility, Jackie Hoffman is an inveterate scene stealer. And that's a problem for the revival of Once Upon a Mattress that is playing in a Transport Group production down at the Abrons Arts Center through Jan. 3. Because Hoffman is its star and without the need to wrench the attention in her direction, she seems a little unsure of how to put her comedic powers to the best use.

And director Jack Cummings III, who has come up with some terrifically imaginative concepts for his company's past productions, seems just as much adrift. His big contribution is having an artist augment the show's low-budget scenery by drawing in additional elements in simulated real time via video projections. But Cummings isn't, alas, able to get his cast performing as though they're all in the same show.

That show is the musical version of the classic fairy tale "The Princess and the Pea" that was written by Mary Rodgers and Marshall Barer with a book by Barer, Jay Thompson and Dean Fuller. Their Once Upon a Mattress tells the story of Winnifred the Woebegone who has to prove she's a princess so that she can marry the heir of the realm.

She clinches the deal when she's unable to fall asleep after the Queen Mother, who opposes the marriage to her son, has a pea slipped under a pile of mattresses on Winnifred's bed: it turns out that only someone royal would be sensitive enough to be bothered by something that small.

It's all silliness but it also creates a great opportunity for a female clown to show off her physical comedy chops and Once Upon a Mattress made a star of Carol Burnett when it debuted in 1959. A 1996 revival with Sarah Jessica Parker fared less well.

Hoffman seemed a more fitting successor (click here to read a profile of the actress). And she does have some good moments, including her rendition of the almost-can't-miss song "Shy," in which Winnifred bellows about how bashful she is.

But Hoffman seems stiff and awkward with Scott Rink's amusing choreography. More importantly, she doesn't convey the underlying poignancy that makes Winnifred's quest to be accepted more than just a joke.

Her fans and lots of critics adore Hoffman and they've been touting this performance but I found it hard not to think of what Burnett brought to the role. The current production has the air of a community theater enterprise in which some folks know what needs to be done and others don't.

Jessica Fontana and Zak Resnick as the show's second romantic couple—a nobleman and his pregnant lady fair who can't marry until the prince does—have the demeanor and vocal dexterity that would fit right into any production during Broadway's Golden Age.

But while the decision to cast John Epperson, best known as the drag artist Lypsinka, as Winnfred's nemesis the queen sounded like a lot of fun it turns out not to a lot less than expected. Hoffman and Epperson are both downtown favorites but their approaches to the work are totally different.

Hoffman, a veteran of Broadway shows ranging from On the Town to The Addams Family, tries to work within the script. Epperson, on the other hand, doesn't trust the material (or maybe himself) and falls back on his usual shtick—campy asides to the audience and movie diva impersonations.

There's something off about a show in which the biggest curtain call applause goes to the the person who has sixth billing. That would be Cory Lingner, who has an audience-pleasing turn in the Gene Kelly-style dance number "Very Soft Shoes."

On the other hand I got to the theater early and spent an hour sitting in the lobby of the Henry Street Settlement House in which the Abrons Center is located. While there, I heard the 7-year-old daughter of the receptionist asking her mom if she could see Once Upon a Mattress again because it was so funny. So, the show apparently does have an audience.

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