The hit songs of Pop Princess Britney Spears are the impetus behind Broadway’s latest jukebox musical Once Upon A One More Time, with a book by Jon Hartmere that reimagines favorite childhood fairytales by the Brothers Grimm from a post-modern, ostensibly feminist perspective. Now playing at the Marquis Theatre, the show was developed and produced by DC’s Shakespeare Theatre Company, where it had its world premiere in 2021. And although it’s not a bio-musical about Spears per se, the librettist loosely compares his theme of the liberation of the legendary wannabe princesses to her emancipation from the “13-year-long conservatorship that stripped her of her human rights.”
In the confused temporal mash-up, directed and choreographed by Keone and Mari Madrid, the storybook princesses are under the control of a demeaning male Narrator, who calls them (via vintage telephone) to enact their tales and, it seems, to compete over which one is the favorite, ebulliently singing “Baby One More Time” (with the added lyrics of “Once upon a one more time”) when a little girl begins reading them. But Cinderella doesn’t really enjoy playing the “happily ever after” that was written for her and begins to question if there’s more to life than just finding her prince and perpetuating the outdated ending. She and a coterie of the other iconic characters (Snow White, Princess Pea, Sleeping Beauty, Rapunzel, and Little Mermaid) meet every other week for their “Scroll Club” to discuss the only stories they know (the ones about them) from Grimm’s Fairy Tales – first published in 1812, and, I might add, as a book, not a scroll, since books replaced scrolls as early as the 4th century (one of the many anachronisms in this time-traveling illogic) – where they ultimately discover that falling in love and marrying a prince is no longer the only option available to them.
The overlying message that drives the musical is that the princesses, after The Notorious O.F.G. (Original Fairy Godmother) gives them copies of Betty Friedan’s 1963 landmark book The Feminine Mystique – in which she exposed “the problem that has no name” (the pervasive dissatisfaction and widespread unhappiness of women in mainstream America during the post-WWII era) and thereby launched the second-wave feminist movement 60 years ago – deconstruct the meaning of “happily ever after” and resolve to use their own voices to tell their own stories. The irony shouldn’t be lost on anyone that the book of Once Upon A One More Time was written by a man (what happened to women’s own voices telling their own stories?) and the majority of the show’s creative team is also men (a truly feminist work might have considered employing more women – just saying). But as we’re told by the Narrator, “Don’t overthink it.” That’s good advice for the entirety of the show.
Led by Briga Heelan as a largely glum and sadly understated (for a rebellious) Cinderella, the Grimm women include standout portrayals by Aisha Jackson as a powerhouse Snow White and Gabrielle Beckford as Rapunzel, with Ashley Chiu as Sleeping Beauty, Ryah Nixon as Goldilocks, and Justice Moore as Red Riding Hood, along with Hans Christian Andersen’s 1835 Princess Pea (Morgan Whitley) and the mute but gracefully expressive Little Mermaid (the excellent Lauren Zakrin) from his 1836 tale, in which the eponymous character, longing for the handsome human prince she saved from a shipwreck, gives up her voice (get it?) in exchange for legs – only to be rejected by him.
The princesses also soon find out that their “happily ever after” princes, mostly unnamed, are one and the same – a philandering narcissistic Prince Charming, played by the show-stealing triple-threat Justin Guarini, who isn’t just two-timing, but multi-timing them. In a story focused on freeing women from the constraints traditionally placed on them, his male role is the funniest, most engaging, and best-written character, and Guarini’s over-the-top egomaniacal delivery is absolutely hilarious. And he provides the best fits for two of the twenty-two interspersed Spears’ numbers (that don’t generally advance the plot but provide lively song-and-dance breaks), with a gender-reversed “Oops! . . . I Did It Again” (recreating Tina Landon’s original choreography, from which the rest of the dance sequences by the Madrids are also derived; there are no waltzes in these erratically shifting times), when he’s caught cheating, more than once, on the princesses with their best friends, and the women then calling him out for being a “Womanizer” (and “Princessizer”).
Other featured roles in the large cast of 27 include The O.F.G., delivered with matriarchal wisdom and liberating relish by Brooke Dillman, who says she shares a place with Betty in Flatbush (a location in Brooklyn that is, inexplicably, a running joke in the show), and Adam Godley, as the very stern, domineering, no-nonsense Narrator, who personifies condescending toxic masculinity to perfection. Of course, Cinderella’s mean Stepmother, embodied by the masterful Jennifer Simard – who performs a devilish rendition of “Toxic” – and stepsisters Belinda (Amy Hillner Larson) and Betany (Tess Soltau), provide her with even more distress, commanding her to “Work Bitch.” There’s also a gay sub-plot, with Prince Erudite (one of the ensemble of princes) falling for Clumsy (here one of the Seven Dwarfs) – both likeable and well-played, respectively, by Ryan Steele and Nathan Levy – to the disbelief of Prince Charming, who automatically assumes everyone is in love with him.
Like the storyline, the artistic design is an inconsistent mix of period styles, with a set by Anna Fleischle and projections by Sven Ortel that offer a clashing, minimalized, modernized take on the familiar fairytale locales, supported by Kenneth Posner’s electrified lighting and Andrew Keister’s sound. Costumes and hair design by Loren Elstein and wigs by Nikiya Mathis begin with the traditional attire of the fictional figures, then shift to current clothes for the now-liberated women, including Cinderella’s exploding slipper that bursts into shimmering light and confetti (an unwritten requirement for a jukebox musical) and wristbands distributed to all ticketholders upon entering the theater that flash along with the grand finale, which you can take home as a souvenir.
If you’re a fan of Britney Spears, who hasn’t yet announced any concert dates for 2023, you can catch some re-orchestrated high-energy Broadway covers of her greatest hits in Once Upon A One More Time (with orchestrations by James Olmstead and Matt Stine, vocal arrangements by Nadia DiGiallonardo, and music direction by Ben Cohen). And if you enjoy silly flighty revisions of classic fairytales and feminism, there are some noteworthy performances to be seen. Just don’t overthink it.
Running Time: Approximately two hours and 20 minutes, including an intermission.
Once Upon A One More Time plays through Sunday, September 3, 2023, at the Marquis Theatre, 210 West 46th Street, NYC. For tickets (priced at $59.50-215.50, including fees), call (877) 250-2929, or go online. Masks are no longer required but are recommended.
You can watch the trailer here: