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A CurtainUp Review
Once Upon a Mattress
A hit when it opened Off Broadway in 1959, Once Upon a Mattress was also a personal triumph for its leading lady Carol Burnett. It catapulted her to stardom belting out many of the show's tuneful songs by Mary Rodgers (music) and Marshall Barer (lyrics). It seems as if "all of Paris was there" (as a good friend of mine would often say at a show where a performer's fan base seemed outnumber the "others.") No doubt about it, Hoffman adorers were legion at the press preview I attended and they rightly let her know their pleasure as soon as she opened her mouth to expel the hilarious character-defining "I'm Shy." This song sets the giddy tone for this very funny musical comedy based on Hans Christian Anderson's fairy tale The Princess and the Pea.
A Broadway revival in 1997 didn't quite pass muster despite a respectable try by Sarah Jessica Parker. Eighteen years is enough time to warrant another look at the plain and ungainly Princess who captures the heart of chubby Momma's boy Prince Dauntless "The Drab" (an endearing Jason Sweet Tooth Williams) and in the full glare of his disapproving mother Queen Aggravain (John "Lypsinka" Epperson). Who else to better play the fashionista mother from Hell than the famous lip-snching impersonator Epperson? Required to do nothing more (or often less) than stare us peasants down, or pose and posture imperiously, Epperson knows how to best show off the very regal costumes designed by Kathryn Rohe.
The joy of the show starts early with the overture, a sweet reminder of the days when the audience got a melodious preview of a show's forthcoming songs. What a treat to have twelve fine musicians under the baton of Matt Castle deliver the score in the small-ish but comfortable Historic Playhouse Theater in the Abrons Arts Center.. . . a trek to which (if you take the subway) will likely have you pass countless butcher shops displaying rows of dead chickens hanging by their necks. It's worth the effort.
Hoffman's off-beat brand of brash naturalism doesn't depend upon any out-of-character mugging to buoy the light-hearted book by Jay Thompson, Dean Fuller and Marshall Barer. She carries the show but doesn't monopolize it given accomplished work of the supporting cast. They, among the Knights and Ladies, are briskly directed byJack Cummings III. Standout is the always terrific David Greenspan who gets his laughs as the hen-pecked mute King Sextimus.
It isn't that Cummings has done anything extraordinarily daring to a show already done to death in school auditoriums across the land. However, he has kept a clear vision of what this show is and isn't as it moves from one silly scene and one charming song and dance to the next. An extra visual treat is provided by Sandra Goldmark's whimsical settings that allow for a steady stream of witty ink sketches drawn live at each performance by illustrator Ken Fallin. Additional bright spots are offered by the comical choreography of Scott Rink.
"Bravo, Bravissimo," (as the lyrics goes) is my response to engaging tenor Hunter Ryan Herdlicka as the Minstrel and Cory Lingner as the Court Jester who got deserved cheers for his balletic solo "Very Soft Shoes." Jessica Fontana glowed as she should as the pregnant Lady Larken and Zak Resnick swaggered appropriately as Sir Harry the man responsible. Together they made sweet music with the show's two lovely ballads "In a Little While," and "Yesterday I Loved You."
Once Upon a Mattress proved to be a gold mine for its creators and we mourn the recent loss of composer Mary Rogers who had a successful career without ever topping the music she wrote for this delightful show. For good wholesome family fun, you can't top Once Upon a Mattress.