'Once Upon a One More Time' review — Britney Spears musical delivers a princess pop party
Read our four-star review of Once Upon a One More Time on Broadway, written by Jon Hartmere and featuring the songs of Britney Spears, at the Marquis Theatre.
Once upon a time, Cinderella and her fellow princesses realized that their happy-ever-afters, as written long ago by men, aren't all that happy. So they set out to change that, armed only with a book from the '60s, pop hits from the '90-00s, and each other's support. This new fairytale is the Broadway musical Once Upon a One More Time, a spectacle powered by the song catalog of the Princess of Pop: Britney Spears.
Once Upon a One More Time is certainly not the first piece of media interested in putting a modern, empowering spin on fairytales — even the notion of the "strong independent princess" has become a tale as old as time. But it certainly is the most fun. Spears's hits and impeccable dancing from director/choreographers Keone and Mari Madrid make Once Upon a One More Time an irresistible party. And quite frankly, that's what I want from a Britney Spears musical more than anything else.
An all-powerful Narrator (Adam Godley) dictates the lives of everyone in Once Upon a One More Time. Fairytale characters lie in wait until a child chooses to read their stories, at which point the Narrator summons them to live out the same tales over and over. "We do not make fairytales, we follow them," he repeatedly insists.
The princesses' newfound desire for change comes from Betty Friedan's 1963 book The Feminine Mystique, which The Notorious O.F.G. (Original Fairy Godmother, played by Brooke Dillman in eccentric-aunt fashion) bestows on the princesses' book club. Given that setup, one shouldn't expect a revelatory feminist story from Once Upon a One More Time: Friedan's book kicked off second-wave feminism, and Friedan famously excluded queer women from her movement, both long outdated notions by today's intersectional, fourth-wave standards.
A hastily drawn gay subplot and cursory nods to modern women's annoyances (through lines like "You're so much prettier when you smile," which elicited loud noises of disgust from my audience) come off as Hartmere's attempts to offset these concerns. Luckily, Friedan doesn't factor heavily into the musical (until the end, which contains a revelation that unwittingly invites the audience to root for her) — just the general notion that she wrote about women wanting to escape rigid, societally prescribed roles.
But like I said, if you're willing to accept Once Upon a One More Time as a kind of period piece in which feminism is new, you'll have a fantastic time, because there is still plenty to unequivocally love. The score is the obvious thing — Hartmere changed a few lyrics in each song to fit the plot, but high-energy hits like "Circus," "Womanizer," "...Baby One More Time," and "Oops!...I Did It Again" are still perfectly recognizable. ("Toxic" stays entirely intact, and even though the lyrics don't quite make sense plot-wise, hearing Godley and Jennifer Simard, as Cinderella's stepmother, sing it is so exhilarating that you won't care.)
But the dance is truly what makes Once Upon a One More Time worth the price of admission. The Madrids are choreographers first, and it shows — their hip-hop- and '90s music video-flavored moves tell a story. The princes dance with unabashed swagger from the start, taking up the whole stage with confidence. The princesses' moves begin small and ultra-precise, almost stilted, but have an underlying sharpness that suggests a fierceness inside them. Their choreography gradually gets bigger and freer — that is, more like the men's — as they tap into that fierceness and find their independence.
Among the large ensemble cast, Justin Guarini is the undisputed standout as the womanizing Prince Charming. He gets two of Britney's biggest songs — "Circus" and "Oops!...I Did It Again" — and delivers them in full rockstar mode to make them the show's best numbers alongside "Toxic." Guarini and Simard deliver both the vocal power and impeccable comic timing (Simard's Stepmother is giving Jennifer Coolidge) — her commanding entrance during "Work Bitch" is one to behold. Among the princesses, Briga Heelan and Aisha Jackson are wonderfully poised as Cinderella and Snow White.
Though it's not the focus, the show does have one feminist element worth noting. Once Upon a One More Time faintly echoes Spears's own successful battle for autonomy; the trial to end her conservatorship, under which her father controlled her assets, was the subject of massive public attention in 2020 and 2021. The musical was licensed post-conservatorship and approved by Spears, the production states, so it's one of the first major projects she's actually profiting off since.
Once Upon a One More Time also ultimately urges us not only to be willing to change the stories we tell and be open to new ideas, but also that sometimes, we must pass the pen to new writers to tell their stories themselves. That message has continued relevance — if anything, it's continually stronger than yesterday.
Photo credit: The cast of Once Upon a One More Time on Broadway. (Photo by Matthew Murphy)
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