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Broadway vet Jackie Hoffman and John "Lypsinka" Epperson reunite in Once Upon a Mattress
As spunky Princess Winnifred in the Transport Group's Off-Broadway revival of Once Upon a Mattress at the Abrons Arts Center, Jackie Hoffman is marking a few firsts. After two-plus decades as a scene-stealing second banana on Broadway and Off (and off-Off), she graduates to romantic lead and even enjoys her first onstage kiss in this twisted musical take on Hans Christian Andersen's fairy tale The Princess and the Pea. But what makes this gig particularly fun (and funny) is something she's been doing for quite a while: trading barbs with longtime friend and occasional costar, John Epperson. Best known for his legendary, lip-syncing drag alter ego, Lypsinka, Epperson uses his own voice as the glamorous and garrulous Queen Aggravain, who's desperate to douse the sparks between her goofy son Prince Dauntless (Jason SweetTooth Williams) and the winsome Winnie.
"The moment I saw Jackie onstage in a David Sedaris play at La Mama in the '90s, I jumped out of my seat and said, 'Who is that?!' recalls Epperson. "Ever since then, I'm always fantasizing about doing shows with Jackie. We're good foils for one another."
In the early '00s, the duo appeared together in a series of TWEED TheaterWorks Fractured Classicks, irreverent, over-the-top, often one-night-only stage parodies of famous old films, notably Imitation of Imitation of Life, in which Hoffman brought down the house crooning tweaked lyrics to the obscure song "If You Don't See What You Want Up Here": "I may not be the girl of your dreams, but at least I'm singing with my own voice!"
"That was my idea," says Epperson and Hoffman snorts. "He takes credit for everything! Everything good in Once Upon a Mattress is John's idea so you can just print that and end the interview now."
All joking aside, this revival was Epperson's brainchild and something he had long dreamed of doing. "I first saw Carol Burnett do it on TV in 1964," he remembers. "Then my first year at college, there was an announcement for the annual school musical: Once Upon a Mattress. I hadn't been in a show since grammar school and I was very frightened. But I went to the audition and got cast as Sir Studley. It was the first time I discovered I could be funny onstage so I never forgot about the show. Over the years, I thought I could play Winnifred but as I got older, I thought, well, maybe now I could play the Queen. Then when Carol played the Queen on TV in 2005, I decided to take the bull by the horns. I thought, who is the new millennium version of Carol Burnett? My pal Jackie Hoffman."
Epperson asked Hoffman to do a reading of the musical and invited Transport Group artistic director Jack Cummings III to watch. Though he couldn't make it, he was intrigued, and in 2013 he called Epperson to ask if the two would be willing to do a concert reading of Mattress as a benefit for the company.
"So we did it and [late composer] Mary Rodgers came and said, 'I want a full production,'" says Epperson. "And that brought us to today." Adds Hoffman, "She shepped a lot of nachas from that concert."
Theatregoers who only know Epperson as Lypsinka and Hoffman as a comedic character actress from Broadway musicals like On the Town and Hairspray will see them show off other facets in Mattress. Sure, Hoffman is her usual hilarious self belting out "Shy" at a wall-shaking volume, but she also exudes incredible vulnerability and sweetness as a woman so excited to meet her potential mate, she swims the moat. Meanwhile, Epperson uses his own singing and speaking voice (save for one gag for Lypsinka fans) as the imperious Queen. Plus, unlike the risqué productions they did over a decade ago, Mattress is family-friendly, save for a few jokes which go over kids' heads.
"It's such an old-fashioned piece and has an innocence to it despite some sexual innuendo," says Hoffman. "We're bringing old-world charm back. It reminds me of On the Town, which is all about people wanting to get laid. That drives this show too."
While Mattress is playing on the Lower East Side and includes other downtown luminaries like Jay Rogers (Whoop-Dee-Doo!) and multi-Obie Award-winner David Greenspan, Epperson and Hoffman don't exactly see this production as a return to their roots.
"I have a lot of problems with the perception of 'downtown theatre,'" says Epperson. "Agreed!" Hoffman interrupts. "When most people hear 'downtown theatre,' they think about Karen Finley shoving a yam in her rectum, not this." Epperson continues, "If you get labeled as something gay or camp or downtown, it can be very limiting." As this production demonstrates, however, a 'downtown' sensibility can stay true to itself while reaching people from every part of the city.
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Photos by Carol Rosegg.
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