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Once Upon a One More Time

Latest Broadway jukebox musical this time with songs from the Britney Spears catalogue is yet another feminist update of Cinderella.

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Briga Heelan as Cinderella in a scene from the new Britney Spears musical “Once Upon a One More Time” at the Marquis Theatre (Photo credit: Matthew Murphy)

[avatar user=”Victor Gluck” size=”96″ align=”left”] Victor Gluck, Editor-in-Chief[/avatar]

The latest jukebox musical is Once Upon a One More Time, based on the Britney Spears catalogue, following in the footsteps of this past season’s other feminist redos of the Cinderella story, Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Bad Cinderella, and the Off Broadway Between the Lines, from the novel by Jodi Picoult, as well as the revisionist update of Romeo and Juliet, & Juliet. It may entrance many of the Princess of Pops fans with all her most famous songs but it is the weakest of the five as a stage musical.

Once Upon a One More Time with its book by Jon Hartmere has a clever premise: The musical is framed by the device of The Narrator stage managing the acting out of the fairy tales when a child asks to be told a story. He has the power to banish them to “Story’s End” if the characters do not behave as their stories are written. He wears a key around his neck to the Great Quill which hangs high above in a floating orb which allows him to make changes – which never seem to occur. Cinderella has grown to feel that something is missing from her story. She and her fellow fairy tales princesses (Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, Rapunzel, The Little Mermaid, etc.) get together for Scroll Club to read aloud from The Great Scroll, that is Grimm’s Fairy Tales, the only book that they know.

Justin Guarini as Prince Charming and Company in a scene from the new Britney Spears musical “Once Upon a One More Time” at the Marquis Theatre (Photo credit: Matthew Murphy)

However, when Cinderella expresses out loud that she wants more, O.F.G. (Original Fairy Godmother) appears and hands her a copy of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique about female empowerment and she tells her that it is set in a kingdom called Flatbush where O.F.G. and the author live. When the princesses discover that Prince Charming is the man in all of their stories so that he has been two-timing them, they get fed up with “Happy Ever After” and decide to go on strike and leave to find Flatbush.

The only problem with Hartmere’s plot is that it remains undeveloped. None of the princesses get to read Friedan’s book (there is initially only one copy) and they take it on faith that it offers them alternatives. The story goes off on a series of tangents (Prince Charming’s assistant Prince Erudite the Celibate reveals that he is gay when he meets Snow White’s assistant Clumsy; the Cinderella’s Stepmother attempts to get the Narrator to choose one of her daughters for Prince Charming after Cinderella’s defection) but these narratives turn out as you would expect with no surprises.

Adam Godley as the Narrator and Jennifer Simard as the Stepmother in a scene from the new Britney Spears musical “Once Upon a One More Time” at the Marquis Theatre (Photo credit: Matthew Murphy)

As staged by director/choreographer team Keene & Mari Madrid, whose credits up until now are mainly in film and music video, (creative consultant: British director: David Leveaux), the many production numbers look like aerobics for a rock video which may please Spears fans but look incongruous in a Broadway musical based on 18th and 19th century stories. Spears’ fans will be pleased that the show includes eight of her top ten hits: “Oops!… I Did It Again,” “Baby One More Time,” “Gimme More,” “Toxic,” “Circus,” “Lucky,” “Work Bitch,” and “Stronger,” almost all with lyrics tweaked by Hartmere to fit a story of princes and princesses.

Some of the songs fit quite naturally into the new plot, others seem shoehorned in while others are totally extraneous. “Hit Me Baby One More Time” becomes “Pick Me Baby One More Time” when the princesses are addressing their readers, with the line “Once a upon a one more time” added for good measure. “Lucky” now has “This fairytale girl’ instead of “Hollywood girl.” In “Work Bitch,” sung to Cinderella by the stepsisters, “You want a Lamborghini? Sip martinis?” becomes “You want a posh carriage, You want a hot marriage.”

Brooke Dillman as O.F.G. (Original Fairy Godmother) (center) and Princesses in a scene from the new Britney Spears musical “Once Upon a One More Time” at the Marquis Theatre (Photo credit: Matthew Murphy)

Other songs are reconfigured in other ways: “A Piece of Me” now begins with “Been on the stepsister scene since I was seventeen” instead of the original “I’m Miss American Dream…” In the song of the same name, “Womanizer, woman-womanizer, you’re a womanizer” sung to the unfaithful Prince Charming becomes “Princessizer, Princess Princessizer/You’re a Princessizer.” His “Circus,” a big production number, is totally irrelevant to the story being told, while “Cinderella” which fits the best may be what inspired the musical.

While Hartmere’s dialogue is neither witty nor clever, the best lines go to Brooke Dillman’s wry Original Fairy Godmother and Jennifer Simard’s Stepmother who make the most of their material. The biggest reaction of the evening comes when O.F.G. tells Cinderella that the freedoms she speaks of are in a land called America to which Cinderella responds “sounds like a paradise for women!” Simard’s deadpan expressions enhance her continual put downs many fold. As the Narrator, classically trained British actor Adam Godley who has appeared with both the National Theatre of Great Britain and the Royal Shakespeare Company seems ill at ease in this setting. However, he has the most poignant line in the show: “Happy ever after isn’t a birthright, it’s a privilege, and it can be taken away.”

Aisha Jackson as Snow White and Briga Heelan as Cinderella in a scene from the new Britney Spears musical “Once Upon a One More Time” at the Marquis Theatre (Photo credit: Matthew Murphy)

Briga Heelan’s Cinderella demonstrates a beautiful soprano in her low-key solo “Everytime” and her duet with Aisha Jackson’s Snow White (“Bright Morning Star”). Unfortunately, her Cinderella makes use of a little girl’s voice which is at odds with her new enlightenment. Jackson is cheerful and bright as Snow White who though unable to spell or read, quickly takes to Cinderella and Friedan’s new ideas.

The show makes use of a few too many princesses who blur as they do not always appear in the same combinations, though Loren Elstein’s costumes attempt to differentiate them. Justin Guarini’s Prince Charming is mostly used for posturing (and admits to Cinderella that he has never read a book) nor does he ever seem to get any more intelligent. Except for Ryan Steele’s coy Prince Erudite the Celibate and Nathan Levy’s hilariously klutzy Clumsy, the other Princes are all anonymous clones.

The Company of the new Britney Spears musical “Once Upon a One More Time” at the Marquis Theatre (Photo credit: Matthew Murphy)

Anna Fleischle’s mostly high-tech settings are at odds with the old-fashioned fairy tales while the lighting design by Kenneth Posner makes use of beams of light typical of rock concerts. Sven Ortel’s projection designs are a light show of their own: the leaves on the trees both on stage and projected at the back of the set change colors with the mood of the songs. Andrew Keister’s sound design is generally too loud to hear the lyrics but is in the style of arena concerts. The ten-member orchestra (several on electronic instruments) which remains unseen during the show is led by Ben Cohn on keyboard.

For those who attend Once Upon a One More Time expecting a Britney Spears concert in which she does not appear this may be a fine time in the theater. For those who want a Broadway musical with something new to say they will be sorely disappointed. Andrew Lloyd Webber fans will compare this unfavorably with Bad Cinderella which at least had a new take on an old fairy tale. Ultimately this may be intended entirely for Britney Spears fans who are legion. In any case, a note of warning: don’t leave immediately after the curtain calls or you will miss the biggest production number of the evening.

Once Upon a One More Time (through September 3, 2023)

Marquis Theatre, 210 W. 46th Street, in Manhattan

For tickets, call Ticketmaster at 800-745-3000 or visit http://www.onemoretimemusical.com

Running time: two hours and 35 minutes including one intermission

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About Victor Gluck, Editor-in-Chief (990 Articles)
Victor Gluck was a drama critic and arts journalist with Back Stage from 1980 – 2006. He started reviewing for TheaterScene.net in 2006, where he was also Associate Editor from 2011-2013, and has been Editor-in-Chief since 2014. He is a voting member of The Drama Desk, the Outer Critics Circle, the American Theatre Critics Association, and the Dramatists Guild of America. His plays have been performed at the Quaigh Theatre, Ryan Repertory Company, St. Clements Church, Nuyorican Poets Café and The Gene Frankel Playwrights/Directors Lab.

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