Britney Spears musical ‘Once Upon a One More Time’ is a puzzling fairytale
The Daily Beast
June 22, 2023
“Once Upon a One More Time” is packed with Britney’s songs—some done well, some done not, and a fun-free Cinderella. Plus “Rock & Roll Man,” “Triple Threat,” and “One Woman Show.”
How do you not get “Baby One More Time” right? That is the first mystery—and the first warning that all may not be well—with Once Upon a One More Time, the musical filled with Britney Spears’ music that opened on Broadway Thursday evening (Marquis Theatre, booking to Nov. 19). Truly, if you’re doing this magnificent banger, don’t kick off your big Broadway jukebox musical with it feeling as messy as this musical makes it.
Of course, this may not matter to the Spears faithful having the time of their lives at this show. Seeing the fans crowd the foyer is one of the most unexpected, life-giving joys of the New York summer. The Marquis has made the musical into a fun night out, complete with themed photo booths, and the audience when this critic attended were bubbling with joy just to be there, dressed up in sparkly tops and their Britney finest. But even for them, one sensed—given the audience responses—the musical hit big at some moments, but did not hit big throughout.
This review is first a plea for a moratorium on the recustomizing of fairytales, if the recustomizing you’re doing is the most basic and glib of feminist refits. The laboriously titled Once Upon a One More Time is a reference to reframing the fairytale’s central storyline of Cinderella (Briga Heelan) wanting something else for herself besides the traditional ending of glass slipper and Prince Charming (Justin Guarini).
The messaging of this amounts to: learn to read, and be independently yourself. Well, yes, you should do and be both those things, but if this is your main and restated point in a two-and-a-half hour musical aimed principally at adults paying hundreds of dollars, you urgently need some fresh material. If you’re approaching the Marquis Theatre from Eighth Avenue, you see that the appositely titled Bad Cinderella recently closed a few hundred meters away. It tried the same thing in the same not-very-engaging and challenging way.
Here, Cinderella is joined by Snow White (Aisha Jackson), Rapunzel (Gabrielle Beckford), Sleeping Beauty (Ashley Chiu), Princess Pea (Morgan Whitley), Little Mermaid (Lauren Zakrin), Belle (Liv Battista), Esmeralda (Pauline Casiño), and Goldilocks (Amy Hillner Larsen) in a kind of storytelling limbo land, all existing at the behest of a male narrator (Adam Godley; puzzled, grave and sometimes seething), who wants their stories to stay just as they are.
Liberation comes in the shape of a copy of Betty Friedan’s landmark 1963 feminist text The Feminine Mystique, and the figure of the O.F.G. (Brooke Dillman), who looks beamed in from 1963 in a chic cocktail outfit and has the air of Glinda from The Wizard of Oz, gently encouraging Cinderella and the others onwards on their path to nascent liberation from the strictures—narrative and otherwise—of patriarchy that Godley represents. (Now, who might else the O.F.G. turn out to be?) A young girl, played on different nights by Mila Weir and Isabella Ye, is a kind of figure of universal girlhood, there to reassure Cinderella she does not want traditional princesses, but new kinds of princesses being independent.
That is all venerable and right, but her presence underscores one of the tonal problems of the show. Stuck halfway being something aimed at children, and something aimed at adults it feels a strange theatrical seesaw of after-school special meets raunchy disco.
Another major problem, as in Bad Cinderella, is that the lead character, Cinderella herself, is made deadly dull and earnest. She is given the most plaintive of ballads to sing. She is good and strong, but is not given any of the character flaws and quirks, or even good jokes, that make her fairytale friends funny and engaging. Instead—and this is really perverse in a show celebrating feminism—it is Guarini who saves the show from dullsville.
The biggest number in the first act, the one that raises the roof as the show tries to find its footing, is his burning up the stage with “Circus.” Guarini is given the space to lean into the smarmy hamminess of the role, and is also given the best songs to bring the razzle-dazzle fire to a show that does not accord its female lead the same. (In a neat storytelling twist, this Prince Charming is cheating on Cinderella with all the other fairytale icons.)
Guarini’s excellence leads to a strange imbalance when the show, leading as it necessarily does to the surely crowd-pleasing moment when Cinderella brings an end to her romance with Charming, actually in that moment makes you root for him getting the seal-the-deal kiss with her. You really shouldn’t want this, but Guarini is such an engaging performer he turns his own character on his head—you want more of his vain doofus, not less. He even makes it make sense at the end—Cinderella’s rejection for him will be liberating for both of them.
Indeed, all the “bad” characters in the show shine in their own ways. Jennifer Simard, last seen in a breakout role in the revival of Company, brings a delicious comedic edge to the Stepmother, splattering her airy cruelty with grandly off-kilter pacing and tortured phrasing. Her daughters, Belinda (Ryann Redmond) and Betany (Tess Soltau) also have a great time, not really tormenting Cinderella, but just cutting loose and behaving like they are having the time of their lives at Britney Spears Broadway musical, particularly when given the opportunity to sing “Work Bitch” at Cinderella as she scrubs away.
This critic waited in vain for Heelan, like everyone else on stage around her, to really let rip. Why not do it with “Baby, One More Time”? Irritatingly, Cinderella is kept in the lane marked “sensible heroine,” denuded of sass, drama, and wit. When this critic saw “Toxic” listed in one of the songs in the second act, finally, he thought, this will be a big, fiery moment. No, it’s been made into a roiling, booming Shirley Bassey-ish ballad for the Stepmother. Fine, but a waste. And maybe they couldn’t get the rights for it, but, given the production’s themes, where’s “I’m Not a Girl, Not Yet a Woman”? Instead, “Stronger” supplies the chief “go-girl” moment of the night, when all the fairytale heroines finally shrug off their narrative shackles. It’s OK, but safe.
To be clear, Once Upon a Time One More Time is not a disaster. The company is great, dancing and singing up the necessary storm number after number. This is a pleasant, rather than magically bravura, night out that, which—oddly for its themes—feels conservative not radical. Can Cinderella, as an icon, only be imagined as sensible? Must she always be strong and true and right, and have no quirks in her journey, or flaws of her own? In changing her ending, the writers who keep trying to reimagine her oddly keep placing her in the most restrictive character straitjackets. In this musical, as an entire company is having fun around her, she has very little fun. She is always doughtily learning, and staying terribly polite in all her pushing back.
There is one very telling reference to modern America in the show. It’s an aside from O.F.G., making clear things are not going so great for women in the America of 2023. It gets a wry laugh. The sanitized, unambitious feminist revolution of Once Upon a One More Time is unsuited to these times where the rights of women, LGBTQ people and non-white minorities, are being ruthlessly denied and curtailed. Where is the vim, vigor, and resistance of true social revolution and rebellion in a character like Cinderella for now?
In this sense, “Gimme More” strikes a curious note towards the end of the show because the show doesn’t offer that much more to their fairytale icons it seeks to set free. In timidly limiting the political and cultural spheres of what they want to say and why they do not—let’s call it liberation-lite—shows like Once Upon a One More Time are depressing reminders of how narrow some horizons are becoming.
Rock & Roll Man
Rock & Roll Man (New World Stages, booking to Sept. 3) is another jukebox musical that lacks a proper interrogation of its central character, yet for fans handsomely delivers on its music. Freed (played here by Constantine Maroulis) was a DJ who ran into legal and many other troubles when the establishment took against his promotion of the work of Black artists. Rock & Roll Man, with the imprimatur of Freed’s family, doesn’t delve too much into him as a person, or his family life—a very oddly emphatic recurring theme in the production, though not really investigated—but thanks to standout vocal performances by performers including Valisia Lekae as LaVern Baker and Rodrick Covington as Little Richard (and props to Bob Ari for playing various malevolent characters like J. Edgar Hoover), rock and roll fans can lap up every vintage tune.
In Triple Threat (Theatre Row, booking to June 30), James T. Lane gives an energetic and deeply felt performance, playing himself and a performing life that has comprised ambition, life-endangering drug addiction, and racism—experienced both professionally and sexually. On a simple stage of colorfully lit and projection-filled panels, Lane plays this dizzying set of experiences out in meaningfully sung, spoken, and dance fragments. The constraints of time mean some segues feel too under-explained. But Lane’s charismatic and commanding presence roots the show, even when the life he presents to us spins out of all control. How that control was regained, and a new professional and personal life to the present day reshaped, is missing—maybe it will make the material for another show.
One Woman Show
Liz Kingsman’s One Woman Show (Barrow Street Theatre, booking to Aug. 11) is a not-to-be-missed, sly, 70-minute gem. Taking her cue from Fleabag and other messed-up pop-cultural female lead characters, Kingsman writes—and plays—an ingenious performance about an actor who is really quite conventional crafting an autobiographical show majoring on how messy her life is (when it isn’t). The laughs are meta and multi-layered, as we see Kingsman try to film the show for producers to watch (and then let her make her own show), and dismiss us the audience because the producers are really the most important to her.
We begin to spy the really quite normal character Kingsman tries to bury in a tissue of nonsense about a much more sexually intriguing monster-that-never-was—complete with a surprise boyfriend who is not what he seems, and more ornithological detail even an ardent bird-lover can handle. Her character’s absurd dislocation from reality is obvious even to her boss (Kingsman plays all the other characters in the show). Then, at the end, Kingsman herself owns up to what she sees as her own dismal intentions as a performer, and the value of what she was parodying in the first place. If this sounds a little meta-to-the-max, Kingsman’s playful wit and reveling in absurdity trace a twistily clever path through to a surprisingly daffy end.