Back in 1959, the Off-Broadway musical Once Upon a Mattress made a star of Carol Burnett. It’s a broad, farcical show that one might not expect from the involvement of Mary Rodgers, the daughter of Richard Rodgers (the book is by Jay Thompson, Dean Fuller and Marshall Barer; the lyrics by Barer), though her music is as lush with melody as her father’s. For the Transport Group’s production, director Jack Cummings III has cast several notable “downtown” performers in major roles, and the result is goofy, spoofy, cartoonish fun.
The show is based on the Hans Christian Andersen fairytale “The Princess and the Pea.” It’s about a prince, Dauntless the Drab (Jason SweetTooth Williams), who is eager to marry but whose mother, the wicked Queen Aggravain, has an unhealthy inclination to keep him single for life. Dauntless’s father, King Sextimus (David Greenspan), sympathizes with his son but is mute, the victim of a curse that will last “until the mouse devours the hawk.” The prince, meanwhile, chafes at his bachelorhood, as do all the citizens, for nobody can marry till Dauntless does. And desperately in need to marry are heartthrob Sir Harry (Zak Resnick) and his pregnant-but-not-yet-showing girlfriend, Lady Larken (Jessica Fontana).
Since this is a fairy tale, the wicked queen (the towering drag performer John Epperson, a.k.a. “Lypsinka,” plays Aggravain) has pre-matrimonial tests. They vary, but they have baffled all comers, and no eligible princesses are left. Desperate, Harry and Dauntless prevail on Aggravain to let Harry seek out spousal possibilities far afield. When he returns from his quest, he has found one in a distant, bog-riddled kingdom: the Princess Winnifred—the part that launched Burnett's career.
As Winnifred, the typically freewheeling Jackie Hoffman employs her trademark sarcasm and brashness more sparingly than usual. Known for playing shrill, blowsy characters (e.g. in On the Town and Hairspray), she has a remarkably lovely singing voice and puts it to good use in a song called “Shy” (and she is persuasive as a shy person, even if one knows better) and the second act’s “Happily Ever After.” Although too old for the part (Williams is at least a decade younger), Hoffman conveys a persuasive winsomeness and easily makes one suspend disbelief. After all, a towering man in lipstick is playing the queen—and the juxtaposition of Epperson and Hoffman is a delight to behold.
The book isn’t top-drawer and bits are dated—there’s a chauvinist moment when Winnifred advises Larken to apologize to Harry even though Larken is not at fault—but the actors do well by it. Cummings has let Epperson play to and even with the audience at times, and it works, although some of the actor’s schtick wears thin and may depend on one’s tolerance for drag.
Rodgers’s score is lovely and varied; in addition to the strenuous dance “The Spanish Panic” and the tuneful “Normandy,” there is the comic number “Man to Man Talk,” when Sextimus in gestures tries to tell Dauntless about the birds and bees.
Most notable is “Very Soft Shoes,” a dance for the Jester that’s not really germane to anything. With a combination of ballet and soft shoe (the choreography is by Scott Rink), and Cory Lingner’s terrific performance, the number becomes the closest thing to a show-stopper in this production.
While classics by Tchaikovsky and Handel are among the familiar options for entertainment during the holidays, Cummings deserves a hallelujah for spotting the possibilities of Once Upon a Mattress for something a bit different and casting it with first-rate zanies. It fits right in.
The musical Once Upon a Mattress plays at the Abrons Art Center (466 Grand St. at Pitt St.) in Manhattan through Jan. 3. Evening performance are at 7:30 p.m. on Tuesday-Sunday; matinees are at 2 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday with the exception of Dec. 20, which has a 3 p.m. matinee). For tickets, call OvationTix at 866-811-4111 or visit the website.