Everybody is assembling their 2016 wish list, and there’s no question that Very Important Wishes — world peace, abundant water, social justice and the sight of Donald Trump entering an asylum for the mentally ill — top the list. But many other wishes worth considering, too, and we humbly submit that one such wish is to see The Transport’s Group delightfully loopy revival of the musical Once Upon a Mattress, starring Jackie Hoffman as Princess Winnifred and John “Lypsinka” Epperson as Queen Aggravain, granted a whole new life.
Define “new life” as you wish — an extended production at the Abrons Arts Center, where the current revival closes this Sunday, or even a commercial run somewhere. Artistic director Jack Cummings III’s production simply deserves more than a limited showing.
It’s not that the musical itself, which premiered in 1959 and made Carol Burnett a star, is necessarily one of the most ineluctably perfect musicals in the whole canon. Neither the book (Jay Thompson, Dean Fuller and Marshall Barer), nor the score (music by Mary Rodgers, lyrics by Barer) aims to shake the rafters of the form. Rather, Mattress is what an earlier generation of theater critics would have categorized as an “entertainment,” because that’s what this clever and amusing version of The Princess and the Pea cheekily does. Having fits and fights and feuds about the show’s flaws is asking the property to bear more dramatic responsibility than it really aspires to in the first place. Can’t a show just be fun?
Or maybe we’re just softies. After all, it’s tough not to be taken in, swept up and swept away by the inspired casting of the leads. As in everything she appears in, Hoffman is a detonating force of choke-hold comedy, and if there’s any soul left among regular New York City theatergoers unacquainted with Epperson’s gift for facial wit, physical bearing, and timing and precision, they ought to be face up at the City Morgue when the clock strikes midnight tonight. He’s genius.
It’s equally a fool’s errand not to look around, up, down and all over Cummings’ jubilant mounting, with its full, swinging embrace of silliness and camp, and not spotlight the supporting players — from David Greenspan as King Sextimus and Hunter Ryan Herdlicka as the Minstrel to Jay Rogers as the Wizard. And when is Rogers, in particular, anything but a joy to watch? Arguably best known for Howard Crabtree’s hits Off-Broadway, When Pigs Fly and Whoop Dee Doo!, many show folks also cherish Rogers for his years in the cabaret circuit.
If you haven’t seen Mattress yet, tick tick tick tick tick tick tick tick.
And someone, anyone, remount this show in 2016.
And now, 5 questions that Jay Rogers has never been asked:
What’s the most perceptive question anyone has asked you about your work?
You look as if you enjoy what you do…do you?
What’s the most idiotic question anyone has asked you about your work?
“You mean you get paid for doing that?”
What’s the weirdest question anyone has asked you about your work?
I got asked a lot when I did TYA [Theater for Young Audiences]: “Is that your real voice?”
What makes a memorable Wizard? (You can refer to any Wizard, all Wizards or just the Wizard you’re playing.) In terms of Mattress, are you the most wonderful Wiz there was?
In the case of Once Upon a Mattress, The Wizard is really not a wizard. He’s an old show man masquerading as a wizard! We find out that the Jester’s father, Sliding Peter Jingle, and Cardamon, The Wizard, ” …were in show business together…”! How The Wizard decides to become Queen Aggravain’s henchman is a wizardly mystery! You go where the work takes you.
How familiar were you with Mattress before being cast, and what has been the most surprising part of this production?
I was only familiar with the television versions of OUAM. I remember all those broadcasts pretty well. In participating in this production, I was delighted at the wonderful score and charming and humorous lyrics of Rodgers and Barer! What a treat!
A group of wealthy but dry and humorless scientists purchased every seat for the next performance of Mattress. There will be a talk-back after, and each actor in the show gets one question in advance. Your question is: “What is funny?” What’s your answer? How do the scientists react?
First, I would ask the scientists how they arrived all the way downtown at The Henry Street Settlement. If they took public transit, I would applaud them for their staunch determination! Then I’d ask them if they enjoyed the program. When they say they loved it, I would then have to say, “That’s comedy!”