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Review: Transport Group’s ‘Once Upon a Mattress’

December 14th, 2015 Comments off

by Ryan Leeds

Jackie Hoffman (center) in 'Once Upon a Mattress.' (Photo: Carol Rosegg via The Broadway Blog.)

Jackie Hoffman (center) in ‘Once Upon a Mattress.’ (Photo: Carol Rosegg via The Broadway Blog.)

Transport Group (Jack Cummings III, Artistic Director) has nurtured some fine productions that have gone on to commercial success. From Almost, Maine to Lysistrata Jones, they have introduced new works and reinvented “old chestnuts.” The company’s name seems perfectly apropos for their new, fabulously funny production of 1959’s Once upon a Mattress, which opened Sunday evening at the Abrons Art Center.

Composer Mary Rodgers and book writers Jay Thompson, Dean Fuller, and Marshall Barer whisk us to medieval times, where we are introduced to a kingdom in a quandary. Queen Aggravain, played by runway perfect female impersonator, John “Lypsinka” Epperson, has decreed that no one in the land is permitted to marry until her son, Prince Dauntless (Jason SweetTooth Williams), is wed. As they shuffle through 13 princesses, not one is deemed worthy—that is, until Princess Winnifred (Jackie Hoffman) arrives.

John Epperson (l) and Jackie Hoffman (r) in 'Once Upon a Mattress.' (Photo: Carol Rosegg via The Broadway Blog.)

John Epperson (l) and Jackie Hoffman (r) in ‘Once Upon a Mattress.’ (Photo: Carol Rosegg via The Broadway Blog.)

Winnifred, or “Fred” as she is known to close friends, claims to be “shy.” Believing that Hoffman is shy is akin to believing in the tooth fairy. Hoffman, whose Broadway credits include Hairspray, The Addams Family, and the recent revival of On the Town, carries so much life and comedic skill it’s a small wonder how one stage can contain her. Hoffman has big shoes to fill, as Carol Burnett originally created the role. She effortlessly succeeds. With impressive vocal and physical gymnastics, Hoffman owns the role. Epperson also shines as the Joan Crawford-esque villainous Queen. Few performers have the ability to draw focus with the slightest raise of a brow, but Epperson is an old-school master who knows how to rule both a kingdom—and a stage.

The show, based on the Hans Christian Anderson fairy tale, The Princess and the Pea, has a marvelous ensemble under the direction of Jack Cummings III. A subplot involving Sir Harry (Zak Resnick) and Lady Larken (Jessica Fontana) increase the urgency for Dauntless to take a bride. Larken is pregnant and wishes to tie the knot, lest she flee the kingdom from embarrassment. Resnick and Fontana possess beautiful singing voices, which blend quite nicely in the score’s ballads, including, “In a Little While” and “Yesterday I Loved You.”

With a majority of the players having Broadway credits, the downtown show may well be served in midtown’s Broadway theater district. While there has been no talk of a transfer, let’s hope that producers will find a way to bring this adorable family-friendly show to a larger house. (The last revival was seen in 1996 starring Sarah Jessica Parker).

With Kathryn Roe’s colorful costumes, Sandra Goldmark cartoonish sets, Ken Fallin’s live, projected drawings and this winning ensemble, this newly scrubbed version of Once Upon A Matttress provides the perfect escapist antidote to “transport” us to a magical world of musical theater.

Once Upon a Mattress
Transport Group at Abrons Arts Center
466 Grand Street, NYC
Through January 3

Ryan Leeds is a freelance theater journalist who lives in Manhattan. He is the Chief Theater Critic for Manhattan Digest and a frequent contributor to Dramatics Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @Ry_Runner or on Facebook.

15 Minutes with Jackie Hoffman

December 8th, 2015 Comments off

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Once Upon a Mattress

by Ryan Leeds

No one will ever accuse Jackie Hoffman of subtlety. As a musical theater actress who made her Broadway debut in 2002’s Hairspray, she’s continued to chew the scenery and turn small bits into pure hilarity. In September, she wrapped a successful run as the alcoholic voice teacher, Maude P. Dilly in the Broadway revival of On the Town. She’s now sharing the stage with Lypsinka in Transport Group’s revamped version of Mary Rodger’s Once upon a Mattress. For the first time, she’s a leading lady and, in spite of her less glamorous dressing room at downtown’s Abrons Arts Center, she’s thrilled to be wearing the crown of comedy in a role originated by the legendary Carol Burnett.  The Broadway Blog spoke with her by phone recently, prior to one of her first preview performances.

You’re a native New Yorker, having grown up in Bayside, Queens. Is that right?
Yes. But now my mom lives in Great Neck—not the wealthy part, but the down and out part—as I sit talking to you from an electrical closet, like a room in the movie Room.

Jackie Hoffman (center) in 'Once Upon a Mattress.' (Photo: Carol Rosegg via The Broadway Blog.)

Jackie Hoffman (center) in ‘Once Upon a Mattress.’ (Photo: Carol Rosegg via The Broadway Blog.)

Tell me about your history with John Epperson (a.k.a. Lypsinksa):
We met when I came back from doing Second City in Chicago. Amy Sedaris and I did a production of The Children’s Hour where we played two little girls and the two lesbian schoolteachers were played by Charles Busch and Lypsinka. It was at a theater company called Tweed. Then we did another show with that company that was legendary. It was Imitation of Imitation of Life. John played Lana Turner and I played the mixed race daughter of the maid. So we go waaaay back.

Are you concerned that you’re assuming a role that Carol Burnett created?
At first I didn’t think it was a good fit when we did the reading, but when we did the concert version I started to really get it and I made it my own. It’s hard not to have her in my head, but I mean that in a good way. I have her blessing and she told me that I’d have so much fun with the role—and she’s right. I’ve been fortunate to be able to create every role I’ve played on Broadway, except On the Town, which was my first revival. I think I brought my own unique spin to that show and I’m bringing my own unique spin to this as well.

John Epperson (l) and Jackie Hoffman (r) in 'Once Upon a Mattress.' (Photo: Carol Rosegg via The Broadway Blog.)

John Epperson (l) and Jackie Hoffman (r) in ‘Once Upon a Mattress.’ (Photo: Carol Rosegg via The Broadway Blog.)

Talk about your role in Once upon a Mattress and give us a thumbnail version of the plot:
Well, there’s an evil queen, (which I’m sure all your readers will identify with) who has an abnormal attachment to her son and doesn’t want him to get married. She has deemed that no one else in the kingdom can get married until the prince gets married. It’s basically a sophisticated story about a bunch of medieval horny people who can’t wed until Prince Dauntless finds an appropriate princess. It’s like auditioning for the Roundabout. Not that I know what THAT’s like. Quote me! So then my character, Princess Winifred arrives. She is unlike anyone anybody in the kingdom has ever met; she’s fun, down to earth, and takes over the castle by storm.

You went to NYU and did improv work at Chicago’s famous Second City, and yet you have such a natural ability to make people laugh. I wonder if you do any character studies or if you just go onstage, do your thing and “crack people up”?
I’d say the latter. Especially in this show, where I get reach into the trunk of shtick, because there is so much opportunity. Carol Burnett said that I would have so much fun doing this and I am because it’s really built for a comedienne.

How are you preparing for performances?
It’s a very vocally demanding role and it takes a lot of me, so I definitely have to warm up vocally. We’re just in the first few performances so I hope I can last through the run. We’ll see.

Well, you had quite a long run in On the Town, so that should have been a good primer.
Yes. I did a lot of vocal gymnastics in that, too, but the songs that I sang fit my voice. Oddly enough, I’m a natural soprano. Winnifred’s songs are much more vocally demanding and “belty.”=

Marc Shaiman, composer of Hairspray, said in a recent New York Times feature  about you that you can do just about anything but dance. Is that because you can’t or you won’t?
Wow! That’s a deep question. I would say 73 percent can’t. I can eventually, but I’m incredibly clumsy and it takes me a lot longer than everybody else. But I will say that Marc saw me dance an intricate finale in Hairspray. It’s just that I had to study it in the wings for two and a half years!

What would you do if you weren’t acting?
Crying. Which is actually what I do after every gig ends and the next one begins.

You are quite self-deprecating, but you’ve also been described as being fearless. Do you have any self-doubt about yourself as a performer or do you always maintain a confidence?
It’s a weird mix. You must think you’re good enough to put yourself in front of people, but if you think about too much, you’re in trouble: What am I doing? Why am I doing this in front of people? Am I good enough?

As a resident of Manhattan and constant kvetcher, what are your top three pet peeves about living in NYC?
Ugh! Sirens, Urine, and Vomit. In that order.

Ryan Leeds is a freelance theater journalist who lives in Manhattan. He is the Chief Theater Critic for Manhattan Digest and a frequent contributor to Dramatics Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @Ry_Runner or on Facebook.