It works. Somehow, Once Upon a One More Time and its improbable storyline featuring Britney Spears, Betty Friedan, and fairy tale princesses works. The incongruous musical that opened at Shakespeare Theatre Company last night is as thought-provoking as it is toe-tapping, as clever as it is hilarious, as bold as it is shiny. It sounds like the world’s wackiest idea for a musical until you’ve seen it, but by golly, it works.
People have been scratching their heads over the peculiar mashup of subject matter ever since Broadway’s Nederlander Group announced their acquisition of Britney Spears’ songbook several years ago. (COVID has delayed the show’s premiere by about two years.) The plot was vaguely described as fairy tale princesses questioning their own stories after reading Betty Friedan’s 1963 feminist manifesto, The Feminine Mystique. And they do it all while dancing to the music of Britney Spears.
If you are thinking “hmmm… those things don’t sound like they should fit together,” you are not alone. The general consensus was that Once Upon a One More Time had equal chances of being the next Mamma Mia! (a hit) or the next Diana (a flop). The stakes were high and the risks were great. And that is why I am so happy to report that Once Upon a One More Time is a full-fledged, grade A, gold star success and exactly the party we need after 21 months of COVID. The gamble is already paying off for Shakespeare Theatre Company, where the musical is playing to sold-out audiences who are dancing in their seats nightly. Rumors of a future Broadway run are circulating, and if last night’s performance was any indication, the show will enjoy a bright future.
Jon Hartmere crafted the show’s successfully bonkers storyline. He also accomplished another highly improbable feat: upstaging Britney Spears. Because while it’s fun to see Spears’ music onstage, what propels this show from good to great is Hartmere’s 21st-century re-examination of fairy tales that girls have grown up with for centuries, fairy tales that subconsciously teach girls that their self-worth is tied to their beauty and their ability to snag a husband. Not so, says One More Time. Let’s put those tired old tropes to bed. It’s time for the ladies to tell their own stories. And so, with just the right amount of philosophizing in between the exuberant dance numbers, this show is raised from a mere spectacle to an inspiring interrogation of social norms.
Starting with Cinderella. Played with quick wit and stellar comedic timing (but questionable pitch on the higher notes of the score) by Briga Heelan, Cinderella has been trapped in her storyline for, well, forever. She lives in a fairy tale world where a narrator (Michael McGrath) controls the stories. Each time a child opens a book, the princesses must act out their tales. With a smile. Over and over. The ending predetermined. Until Cinderella finally starts to question things.
The Original Fairy Godmother (in a charismatic comedic performance by Brooke Dillman) has been waiting for a princess to go rogue. She appears on the scene with a copy of The Feminine Mystique and pretty much blows Cinderella’s mind. Imagine living with one version of reality your whole life only to find out that everything you’ve been taught since childhood is problematic. It’s a realization familiar to many people, and it leaves us rooting for Cinderella and her fellow princesses as they muster the courage to change their own stories.
But back to Britney: 23 of Spears’ songs are interspersed throughout the show, and it’s fun to see which characters get to sing which songs. Cinderella’s stepmother and stepsisters get “Work, Bitch” (an obvious choice) while Prince Charming is the new voice of “Oops, I Did It Again” after he is caught being… less than charming. Spears’ songs seem to fit seamlessly into the story Hartmere crafted around them. Maybe because the story of princesses fighting for self-autonomy in One More Time so closely parallels Spears’ own public struggles as she fought to end the conservatorship that allowed her father and others to control her finances and even her body. Has a rallying cry for self-autonomy been the subtext of Spears’ songs all along? OK, probably not — Spears has a writing credit on only three of the songs in the show — but there is no denying that the creators of One More Time had a bounty of material to choose from in crafting a musical from her songbook.
The husband and wife team of Keone and Mari Madrid choreograph and direct One More Time. New to theater, but not to cutting-edge choreography, the pair is known for choreographing music videos for Billie Eilish, Ed Sheeran, and Justin Bieber (to name a few). Their choreography can also be seen in just about every dance competition show out there. For One More Time, their choreography is crisp, vibrant, and contemporary. Take the mashup of two Spears songs, “Boys” and “Pretty Girls,” which plays out in a dance-off between highly synchronized male dancers on one side of the stage and the female dancers on the other. The dancing also contributes to the most spectacular curtain call I have seen in a while and a number of dances that showcase the sublime talents of Justin Guarini.
The rest of the cast is very good, but Guarini (of American Idol fame) rises to a Britany Spears–quality, diva-level performance. It’s like the rules of gravity don’t apply to him when he dances, and his smile will light up the darkest recesses of your cold COVID-hardened soul. The magic starts straight out of the gates when Guarini, who plays Prince Charming, performs “Make Me” while, among other things, swinging from a chandelier.
Guarini is joined by a bevy of princesses. In addition to Cinderella, there is Snow White, played by Aisha Jackson, a princess whose lack of schooling has left her spelling challenged, but not vocally challenged. Jackson lets out a whopper of a solo in “From the Bottom of My Broken Heart.” Lauren Zakrin stands out as The Little Mermaid, who gives up her voice for a man and then gets it back in time for an exuberant solo. Morgan Weed is great as a sarcastic Princess and the Pea. As Gretel and Little Red Riding Hood, Selene Haro and Jennifer Florentino’s dance moves light up the stage in the curtain call.
And then there are the stepsisters. Mimi Scardulla (as Belinda) and Tess Soltau (as Betany) are festooned in the exaggerated foppery you have probably seen in past incarnations of Cinderella’s jealous siblings. (Costumes by Loren Elstein.) The duo is perfectly cast as comedic foils, playing off one another and simpering under the biting acidity of their mother, a deliciously conniving Emily Skinner.
The other fun storyline in One More Time is the love story between Prince Erudite (Ryan Steele) and Clumsy (one of Snow White’s Seven Dwarves played by Raymond J. Lee), an adorable subplot and a nod to Spears’ large gay fanbase.
The lyrics to Spears’ songs have been gently massaged to fit into the storyline of the show. The opening number, “Baby, One More Time,” which serves as an introduction to each princess, features lyrics tweaked from “My loneliness is killing me/hit me baby one more time” to “my lonely quest is killing me/pick my once upon a time.”
The set is minimal and, much like Old Mother Hubbard’s cupboard, it feels a bit bare. More extravagant trappings will be required to satisfy a Broadway audience (and to justify Broadway pricing). A large orb hovers above the stage holding the “quill,” the ancient writing instrument used to write each princess’s story. Large screens cover the rear of the stage end to end and top to bottom (scenic design by Anna Fleischle). Projections (by Sven Ortel) are utilized to create a variety of backdrops while the screens seem to magically take on different colors depending on the mood of each scene (lighting design by Sonoyo Niskikawa).
Once Upon a One More Time is a bona fide success. Catch this one, DC, before it hightails it to Broadway.
Running Time: 2 hours and 20 minutes, including one 20-minute intermission.
Once Upon a One More Time plays through January 9, 2022, at Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Sidney Harman Hall, 610 F Street NW, Washington, DC. Tickets ($35–$190) are available for purchase online. Premium seating is also available for weekend performances. Special discounts are available for military, students, seniors, and patrons age 35 and under. Contact the Box Office at (202) 547-1122 or visit ShakespeareTheatre.org for more information.
COVID Safety: Through the end of the run of Once Upon a One More Time, all patrons must provide proof of vaccination to attend any performances or events. In addition, COVID-19 vaccinations are required for all performers and theater staff. For full guidelines about providing proof of vaccination, visit the theater’s Health and Safety page. Only performers and people invited onstage for talkbacks may be unmasked. Venue attendees must remain masked, including during performances, unless eating and drinking in designated lobby areas.
What’s ‘Once Upon a One More Time’ doing at the Shakespeare? (column by John Stoltenberg)