Once Upon a One More Time Review. A Britney Spears musical without Britney Spears

One more time indeed!  Like “& Juliet,” this jukebox musical features songs made popular by Britney Spears; like “Bad Cinderella,”  its central character is a rebellious version of Prince Charming’s one-shoed love interest;  like “Six,” the show is a high-energy spectacle with a rock concert vibe, featuring a multicultural group of colorfully-costumed performers portraying female figures from the past (in this case fairy tale princesses) who loudly proclaim a frilly type of feminism — less fourth wave than sonic wave.

If “Once Upon a One More Time,” opening at Broadway’s Marriott Marquis Theater tonight, is clearly not strikingly original, the story does have a few distinctive touches, and the production Broadway-level pleasures. The design is flashy, and the choreography is thrilling. The talented cast is game, featuring such reliably delightful Broadway veterans as Justin Guarini as a two-timing Prince Charming and Jennifer Simard as the scheming Stepmother, as well as the impressively weight-bearing Broadway debut of Briga Heelan as Cinderella. But the show is probably best appreciated by taking the advice offered in a different context in the musical by a character called the Narrator: “Don’t overthink it.”

Above: Aisha Jackson as Snow White, Briga Heelan as Cinderella.
Dancers: Justice Moore, Mikey Ruiz, Selene Haro, Joshua Daniel Johnson
Adam Godley as The Narrator and Jennifer Simard as Stepmother

The Narrator is one of the show’s distinctive touches, portrayed by another reliable veteran, the terrific British character actor Adam Godley, seen on Broadway last year in his Tony nominated role in “The Lehman Trilogy.” The Narrator is like a persnickety stage manager, calling places for the fairy tale characters whenever a child starts to read their particular tale, and insisting that every character behave precisely how they are expected to; not even the tiniest detail can ever be changed: “We’re not here to make fairytales. We’re here to follow them.”  He says “Happily ever after” the way others say “Have a nice day,” except with a trace of menace.   The Narrator becomes the villain of the show when Cinderella rebels, after the Original Fairy Godmother, better known to the princesses as Notorious O.F.G. (Brook Dillman), gives her the first book she has ever seen: “The Feminine Mystique” by Betty Friedan. Cinderella shares the book and its liberating message with the other fairy princesses, convincing them all to go on strike.

The premise suggests any number of comic possibilities, but the striking princesses are never the focus of attention. It’s difficult even to distinguish among them,  Snow White (Aisha Jackson) being the only one besides Cinderella to make much of an impression, because the others — Rapunzel (Gabrielle Beckford), Sleeping Beauty (Ashley Chiu), Princess Pea, as in Princess and the Pea (Morgan Whitley),  the Little Mermaid (Lauren Zakrin) – are given hardly any lines.

Their story was not a priority.  The priority was to cram into the show as many songs as possible that Britney Spears has sung. After all, “Once Upon A One More Time” is “powered by the hits of Britney Spears,” as it says right up on the theater’s marquee. It’s “based on the music performed and recorded by Britney Spears,” it says on the title page in the Playbill.

This seems the right moment to insert the critical equivalent of a warning label: This musical is not about Britney Spears. There is no Britney character in it, no attempt to tell her life story. She also doesn’t perform in it, nor has she written it:   Spears gets co-writing credit on just six of the show’s twenty-four songs, which are the collective effort of more than fifty other songwriters.

A naïve observer should therefore be forgiven for wondering: How is this a Britney Spears musical? 

The answer is obvious: It’s a Britney Spears musical primarily because it’s being marketed as a Britney Spears musical, designed to draw in the Britney Army. In the lobby of the theater, there are four Instagrammable booths that you can enter, each one given the title of a song that Britney made into a hit (“Stronger,” “Toxic,” “Lucky”.) The concession stand sells t-shirts that say “It’s Broadway, Bitch.” (a takeoff of the much-memed catchphrase “It’s Britney, bitch,” which she says at the top of the music video for “Gimme More.”)  The stand also sells copies of “The Feminine Mystique,” Betty Friedan’s seminal feminist book.

That juxtaposition serves as a succinct symbol of the awkward fit between what are arguably two different shows – the concert catering to Britney fans, and book writer Jon Hartmere’s campy spoof of fairy tales. The first is pitched as a party; we even each are given a party favor to keep, a wrist band that lights up in many colors in sync with the finale. The second takes a stab at cleverness by playfully and pointedly subverting the fairy tale formula, such as in a subplot involving Snow White’s eighth dwarf, Clumsy (Nathan Levy), who comes out as gay when he falls for Prince Erudite (Ryan Steele.) 

Most of the time, the two shows run parallel, never completely meeting. The songs often feel shoe-horned into the story, even when the lyrics are changed. (An egregious example of such a change occurs in “Womanizer” when the refrain becomes “Princessizer.”)

On occasion, the two shows do work together, such as when the stepmother and stepsisters (Ryann Redmond and Tess Soltau) sing “Work Bitch” to Cinderella, and when the vain Prince Charming makes an  entrance singing the Britney hit “Circus” (“All eyes on me in the center of the ring just like a circus.”) 

There’s another Prince Charming musical number that represents a bridge of another sort. The princesses discover that he is the prince for each of them; a fairy tale polygamist  That leads to his leading the song “Oops…I Did It Again” (one of the three songs that are also in “& Juliet.”) The choreography in that number deliberately mimics the movement in Spears’ music video of that song, a kind of physical quotation that had the Britney fans in the audience roaring.

Spears has reportedly given notes about the choreography to Keone and Mari Madrid, the husband and wife team who are both directing and choreographing the show. This makes sense.   It’s in the dancing — with its hip hop moves, lightning quick takes, propulsive sexual energy – that “Once Upon a One More Time” comes closest to an actual Britney Spears musical.

Once Upon a One More Time
Marriott Marquis Theater

Closing September 3, 2023
Running time: Two hours and 30 minutes, including a 15-minute intermission
Tickets: $69–$200. Digital lottery: $47
Book by Jon Hartmere
Directed and choreographed by Keone & Mari Madrid
Creative consultant, David Leveaux
Scenic Design by Anna Fleischle; Costume Design by Loren Elstein; Lighting Design by Kenneth Posner; Sound Design by Andrew Keister; Projection Design by Sven Ortel; Wig Design by Nikiya Mathis; Hair Design by Loren Elstein; Air Sculptor: Daniel Wurtzel;
Cast: Briga Heelan as Cinderella, Justin Guarini as Prince Charming, Aisha Jackson as Snow White, Jennifer Simard as Stepmother, Adam Godley as The Narrator, Brooke Dillman as The O.F.G. (Original Fairy Godmother), Ryann Redmond as Stepsister Belinda, Tess Soltau as Stepsister Betany. Gabrielle Beckford as Rapunzel, Ashley Chiu as Sleeping Beauty, Nathan Levy as Clumsy, Ryan Steele as Prince Erudite, Morgan Whitley as Princess Pea, Lauren Zakrin as Little Mermaid, Matt Allen, Liv Battista, Jacob Burns, Pauline Casiño, Selene Haro, Joshua Daniel Johnson, Amy Hillner Larsen, Justice Moore, Kevin Trinio Perdido, Mikey Ruiz, Salisha Thomas, Josh Tolle, Diana Vaden, Mila Weir, Stephen Scott Wormley, and Isabella Ye.
Photographs by Matthew Murphy

Aisha Jackson as Snow White, Morgan Whitley as Princess Pea, Briga Heelan as Cinderella, Ashley Chiu as Sleeping Beauty, Gabrielle Beckford as Rapunzel and Lauren Zakrin as the Little Mermaid


Act 1
Baby One More Time
Make Me
Work Bitch
Brightest Morning Star
Boys / Pretty Girls
Oops!…I Did It Again
Piece of Me
Scream & Shout / I Wanna Go

Act 2

Lucky (Reprise)
Cinderella (Reprise)
Scream & Shout (Reprise)
Gimme More
Till the World Ends

Author: New York Theater

Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

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