Once upon a time, there were fresh, original shows on Broadway. They were composed of clever lyrics and melodies along with unique stories and powerful ideas, well-constructed by creative teams and financed by producers who were willing to take risks.
True, many of them were products of their time and were socially and culturally problematic. Fortunately, we’ve learned, evolved, and have become much more enlightened since then.
Years later, many of the songs and themes from these works continue to be universally adored and embraced. In spite of their flaws, they’ve become respected theatrical works by people who truly knew the craft.
Now, to quote Britney Spears: “Oh baby, baby, it’s killing me”. In this case, “it” is the current state of Broadway and more specifically, Once Upon A One More Time (★★★☆☆), the latest entry into a long list of jukebox musicals that aim to revise and reconstruct the fairy tale narrative. That’s right, folks. The highest level of American Theater now includes an entire score of Britney Spears’ earworms.
Washingtonians had the chance to see the show first when it premiered at The Shakespeare Theater in November, 2021. Artistic director Simon Godwin shepherded the show (ultimately met with mixed reviews) stating, “Coming out of a pandemic, I realized we needed a party. We needed something glorious and fun and euphoric. And who better to help us do this than Britney Spears?”
Fair enough. As of last month, health experts proclaimed that actually, the pandemic is still very much with us. So, sure. Bring the party to New York City. Not everything on the Main stem has to have intellectual merit. If a slim to none dose of genius is your ideal prescription, you’ve arrived at the right castle.
Here, you’ll meet all the of the princesses you’ve come to know as a child: Cinderella (Briga Heelan), Snow White (Aisha Jackson), Rapunzel (Gabrielle Beckford), Sleeping Beauty (Salisha Thomas), and other favorites from Grimms’ Fairy Tales.
They’ve all been summoned to recreate their picture-perfect lives by the Narrator (Adam Godley), a rakish, controlling, patriarchal mastermind who holds sway over their every move. The Little Girl (a role shared between Mila Weir and Isabella Ye) wants to hear a bedtime story.
It is up to all of the characters to impart their stories exactly as they have always done. When Cinderella slightly deviates off course, she is chided by the Narrator. “Children want things the same, every time. The narrative is very clear. We’re not here to make fairytales. We’re here to follow them.”
None of these individuals have any agency over themselves until Cinderella’s Fairy Godmother (Brooke Dillman) introduces her to a scroll version of Betty Friedan’s groundbreaking bestseller The Feminine Mystique. Once word spreads throughout the storybook kingdom, all of the princesses change course and revolt. Prince Charming (Justin Guarani) woos, but doesn’t capture the heart of his lady because, duh! After self-realization, she is obviously “Stronger.”
There are some truly entertaining performances here. Broadway veteran Jennifer Simard, who consistently steals shows, delivers a delicious performance as Cinderella’s Stepmother. Her daughters, Belinda (Amy Hillner Larsen) and Betany (Tess Soltau) are equally enjoyable. As Cinderella scrubs the floors, they lord over her singing “Work Bitch.” It is one of the show’s funniest moments.
Aisha Jackson perfectly combines sass and heart as Snow White and Heelan, mostly known for her television work, wraps Cinderella in empathy and determination in a strong Broadway debut. Guarini, with a kilowatt smile and unbridled narcissism, gives his dim Prince Charming comedic antics galore.
Those who aren’t schooled in Spears’ catalog should still have a good time. Loyalists and die-hards fans will also appreciate hearing favorites from her songbook. Matt Stine and James Olmstead’s orchestrations maintain the essence of the original radio hits but somehow, they are even more electric and thrilling. Husband and wife team Keone and Mari Madrid, who directed and choreographed the show, give this cast some jaw-dropping dance moves that will have audiences responding with awe and applause.
Given Spears’ public battle over control of her own career, it should be known that the Princess of Pop has had a voice in bringing this show to fruition. According to the Hollywood Reporter, “Spears has signed off on the musical. She also suggested initial themes for the plotline and signed an underlying rights agreement with the production, in one of the first deals signed since the singer was freed from her conservatorship in November 2021.”
Broadway has been flooded lately with pop musicals proclaiming the importance of female empowerment. Indeed, it is a message that is long overdue and demanding of attention. Recently, Six, & Juliet, Bad Cinderella, Diana, and Some Like It Hot have all covered similar ground. And most of them, like Once Upon A One More Time, include a gay subplot.
Some shows have done it with more finesse than others. The truly clever ones have done it in a way that slickly integrates the message rather than trying too hard to teach a lesson. Once Upon A One More Time‘s book, by Jon Hartmere, relies too heavily on tired tropes and hackneyed lessons.
At its core, this tuner is trying too hard to peddle nutrients, but it’s simply a “circus” of cotton candy and snack food that will quickly fall from memory soon after the curtain drops.
Once Upon A One More Time is now playing at the Marquis Theatre 210 West 46th St. in New York City. Tickets are $59 to $215. Call 212-239-6200 or visit www.onemoretimemusical.com.
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