Book by Jay Thompson, Dean Fuller, and Marshall Barer
Directed by Jack Cummings III
Reviewed by David Roberts and Joseph Verlezza
Theatre Reviews Limited
Imagine a Kingdom – not just any Kingdom – where the Leader is under a spell that renders him mute and cannot be broken until the “mouse devours the hawk.” The Leader has no voice therefore no power. Imagine. Wait, there is such a Kingdom, in fact several of them where the leaders seem to be under spells that prevent them from speaking and acting and in most cases that spell will not be broken until the leaders (the mice) can overcome the hawk (the uncooperative legislative bodies, international terrorism, poor poll ratings, etc.). The imaginary kingdom is the stuff of the fairytale by Hans Christian Anderson likely based upon folk texts from Denmark, Italy, and India titled “The Princess and the Pea.”
And “Princess and the Pea” is the inspiration for the splendid “Once Upon a Mattress” which is enjoying its first Off Broadway revival at the Abrons Arts Center in Manhattan’s East Village. This reimagining of the classic fairy tale provides delightful back stories for all the characters and a wonderful score by Mary Rogers. And the Transport Group Theatre Company presents this revival with delicious gender-bending bits and pieces that often bring the house down with raucous and spirit-filling laughter. Watch for more than one pun delivered at the expense of Queen Aggravain played to perfection by John “Lypsinka” Epperson whose height and wit command the stage.
The Queen demands that the hopeful Princess Winnifred (played with scintillating comedic timing by Jackie Hoffman) display the sensitivity needed to win the hand of her son Prince Dauntless (Jason Sweet Tooth Williams) by sensing the presence of a pea buried beneath twenty mattresses – a pea that would awaken the Princess were she truly a Princess. The shenanigans leading up to the ordeal are fraught with complications, concoctions, contortions, and celebrations of love.
This “Once Upon A Mattress” has a truly ensemble cast that brings to life Jay Thompson, Dean Fuller, and Marshall Barer’s clever book and Mary Rogers’ catchy score and engages the audience on several levels from the simple to the profound. King Sextimus (David Greenspan) regains his voice after his son Dauntless stands up to the overbearing Aggravain. The King’s recovery of voice serves as a touching trope for all victories over oppression and silencing. Lady Larken’s (Jessica Fontana) ability to walk away from Sir Harry’s (Zak Resnick) wrathful tirade despite her pregnancy is an equally engaging trope for self-reliance and self-determination.
Under Jack Cummings III’s sensitive and careful direction, the entire cast is superb with some having moments in which they are able to excel. Ms. Hoffman is no less than brilliant as she climbs every comedic step in “Shy” and when she reaches the top, she manages to give more, demonstrating her musical theater expertise. She defines, embodies, and gives an endearingly honest portrayal of her character. There are no words to describe John “Lypsinka” Epperson as she glides royally across the stage making her fancy garb float as she turns to raise an eyebrow or elevate an upper lip in disgust and disapproval. She reigns with a magical presence. Mr. Greenspan commands every scene he enters without uttering a word. He is truly a gifted actor and remarkable comedian in the likes of Sid Caesar. Cory Lingner tears up the stage in his rendition of “Very Soft Shoes” hovering in the air, leaping loftily and effortlessly and manages to precisely hit every mark and musical cue. Zack Resnick has a beautiful baritone that lends itself to his character, Sir Henry, at times powerful but also sensitive with pure tonal quality. Jessica Fontana mesmerizes with her clear piercing Soprano that interprets her moods perfectly. Hunter Ryan Herdlicka (The Minstrel) and Jay Rogers (The Wizard) round out the impressive ensemble cast.
Just when the engaging characters start to become “too real,” Sandra Goldmark’s cartoonish set with scenic illustrations and live drawings by Ken Fallin (how much more interactive can a musical get?) transports the audience back into the land of fairy tales and make believe and wishes that sometimes come true. “Once Upon a Mattress gives the audience renewed hope for the future and the possibility for a positive outcome to the struggles of the present – a happily ever after for the global community.