Piling the Mattresses High: Celebrating Once Upon a Mattress
The excitement I feel for the upcoming revival of Once Upon a Mattress at The Transport Group is not to be dismissed. I believe it is just what New York audiences need right now: a laugh riot with great music and a cast that can do this piece justice. Once Upon a Mattress, with music by Mary Rodgers, lyrics by Marshall Barer, and a book by Jay Thompson, Dean Fuller and Barer has always been underestimated, relegated to second tier musical status when in fact the piece is just about as perfect as it can get. A misbegotten 1997 revival of the musical didn’t make the best case for the musical which is funny, melodic, of one piece, and really just a fairy tale overflowing with joy. It’s everything musical comedy should be.
Based on the 1835 Hans Christian Anderson children’s story called The Princess and the Pea, Once Upon a Mattress tells the story of a kingdom where everyone is forbidden to marry until the a proper wife can be found for Prince Dauntless the Drab. There is one catch: Queen Aggravain has a little trouble cutting the apron strings and finds all potential wives unsuitable by putting them through a battery of impossible tasks. Enter: Princess Winnifred the Woebegone, a brash and bold suitor from a foreign land who has the coconuts to swim the moat and climb over the palace wall to introduce herself to the queen for consideration. Dauntless falls in love with her immediately, and Queen Aggravain devises her most impossible set of tests to date, which Winnifred conquers with alacrity.
Carol Burnett originated the role of Winnifred in the original 1959 Off-Broadway production (which eventually moved to Broadway). Burnett’s deft comic timing, gangly physicality, and winning charm made her the perfect foil for the uptight, cunning Queen Aggravian played by Jane White. Several TV versions of the musical have been made, all including Burnett in the cast. The first two TV versions were in 1964 and the second was in 1972. Burnett played Winnifred in both. The 1964 inception featured most of the original cast including White, Joseph Bova and Jack Gilford, as well as Elliott Gould, Bill Hayes and Shani Wallis. The 1972 version once again featured Gilford and White, and Bernadette Peters and Ken Berry played Lady Larkin and Prince Dauntless respectively. In 2005, The Wonderful World of Disney presented Tracey Ullman as Winnifred, with an all-star cast that included Carol Burnett as Queen Aggravain, Dennis O’Hare as Dauntless, Tom Smothers as The King, Zooey Deschanel as Lady Larkin, Matthew Morrison as Sir Harry, and Edward Hibbert as the Wizard. The 1997 Broadway revival was led by Sarah Jessica Parker as Winnifred.
Now The Transport Group is reviving Once Upon a Mattress and they are getting at the heart of what works about the piece. Princess Winnifred is neither a cutesy character, nor is she a shy little violet. No worries here as comedienne Jackie Hoffman, bright and bulldozing, is set to play the lead. Some might quibble she has aged out of the role, but I am convinced that her comedic bravura and her larger-than-life persona will work in this role. The show has always had a touch of the camp factor, and nowhere is Hoffman more comfortable than in the world of audacious camp. Add to the fun, drag artist John “Lypsinka” Epperson is wrapping his outrageous queenliness around the role of Queen Aggravain. This is an inspired casting choice that will certainly augment the deliciousness of the proceedings. With a supporting cast that features the delightfully quirky Corey Lingner, the gifted and gorgeous Hunter Ryan Herdicka, the spot-on hilarious David Greenspan, the winsome Jessica Fontana, and the handsome Zak Resnick, this production is bound to enchant.
The infectious score is, as should be the case of any musical, the real highlight of the piece. The spritely “Many Moons Ago”, the clamorous “Shy”, the delicate “In a Little While” and the whimsical “Normandy” are standouts in what is truly a melodic score full of wit and humorous revelry. The farcical nature of Once Upon a Mattress adds to the much-appreciated silliness of the show, something that seems to be lacking in most new musicals comedies. For a show that was written in 1959, there is something refreshing and unharnessed about this musical that makes it feel like it is brand new. Hopefully, the Transport Group will have a great success with this revival and perhaps extend its run long enough for me to see it February when I get to NYC again. It’s just wonderful that a new generation of audiences will get to delight in a revival of this oft-overlooked gem.