When it comes to theatrical roles, you could say that Jackie Hoffman has always been a bridesmaid but never a bride.
New York’s go-to comic character actress has portrayed a boozy vocal coach in “On the Town,” a ghoulish grandma in “The Addams Family,” a meddlesome maid in “Regrets Only,” an uptight mother in “Hairspray,” and dozens more. All of them marvelously mugging and cracking wise in support of major players.
So when it was announced that Hoffman would star as Princess Winnifred in the Transport Group’s revival of “Once Upon a Mattress,” I couldn’t help wondering, can she lead an entire show or will her shtick get stuck?
Jackie Hoffman wears the crown in this fractured fairytale tuner
Not to worry. Under the savvy direction of Jack Cummings III, Hoffman’s turn is the perfect marriage of talent and role — her highly physical, exaggerated, winking delivery is precisely what the show requires. The 1959 musical comedy (with music by Mary Rodgers, lyrics by Marshall Barer, and a book by Barer, Jay Thompson, and Dean Fuller) is a twisted retelling of “The Princess and the Pea” fairytale.
The role was originated by none other than Carol Burnett and subsequently taken on by Ann B. Davis (yep, Alice from “The Brady Bunch”), Imogene Coca, and much later, Sarah Jessica Parker. Hoffman is a worthy successor to the crown.
The bespectacled, comic dynamo nails it from her first musical number “Shy,” where she proves she is anything but. She works her highly expressive, rubbery facial features to marvelous comic effect. To see her stick her fingers in her mouth and pull it open to outsized cartoonlike proportions is a wonder to behold. Her throaty, unpolished vocals work to her advantage here.
Not that Hoffman has to carry the whole enterprise. John Epperson (aka Lypsinka) dazzles as Queen Aggravain, the devious, overprotective mother of Prince Dauntless (a perfectly schlubby Jason “SweetTooth” Williams, who bears an uncanny resemblance to Seth Rogen). Epperson borrows generously from his bag of Lypsinka mannerisms (think Gloria Swanson and Betty Davis) to ramp up the hilarity. Also on hand is the Obie-winning downtown theater veteran David Greenspan as the mute King Sextimus, a bearded Zak Resnick as the dashing Sir Harry, Jessica Fontana as Harry’s not-so-demure beloved, Lady Larken, and Hunter Ryan Herdlicka as the adorable Minstrel.
As any musical theater fan knows, the plot is exceedingly goofy, set in motion by a marriage law that states: “Throughout the land no one may wed, ‘til Dauntless shares his wedding bed.” Problem is, any prospective princess must pass an impossible test devised by the smothering Queen, who refuses to let another woman come between her and docile Prince Dauntless. Winnifred’s test is to see if her night’s sleep is disturbed by a tiny pea placed under a stack of 20 downy mattresses (only a true princess would detect it). Can the others concoct a scheme to ensure Winnifred passes the test?
The energetic, 19-person cast is exceptional, though there are moments when the choreography (by Scott Rink) is not as tight as is should be, in part due to overcrowding on the small stage. Still, it is a special treat to see a show at the historic Henry Street Settlement Playhouse at the Abrons Arts Center — once home to such legends as Martha Graham, Orson Welles, Aaron Copland, Eartha Kitt, Merce Cunningham, and Paul Taylor — which is celebrating its centennial this year. (Speaking of theaters, “Once Upon a Mattress” was born at the old Phoenix Theater, currently home to the Village East movie multiplex on Second Avenue and East 12th Street.)
Granted, the vaudeville-esque musical is beginning to show its age, and the campy, puerile humor is not for everyone (The equally lampoonish “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,” which premiered a couple of years later, suffers from a similar affliction).
The production is greatly enhanced by Kathryn Rohe’s candy-hued medieval costumes and Sandra Goldmark’s appropriately rudimentary scenic design, featuring cartoon drawings by Ken Fallin.
When the yuck-inducing yarn reaches its inevitable, happily-ever-after conclusion, Hoffman appears in a dazzling white bride’s gown. After more than two decades of being a bridesmaid, I must say it suits her remarkably well.
ONCE UPON A MATTRESS | The Transport Group | Abrons Arts Center, 466 Grand St. at Pitt St. | Through Jan. 3: Tue.-Sat. at 7:30 p.m.; Sat. at 2 p.m.; Sun. at 3 p.m. | $45 at transportgroup.org | Two hrs., 20 mins., with intermission