Britney Spears Musical – Deadline


Bad Cinderella could have been the poison apple that killed off revisionist fairy tales once and for all, but Britney Spears and Once Upon A One More Time, the new Broadway musical opening tonight that brims with her hits and high spirits, has come along to deliver a happy ever after that’s as unexpected as it is enchanting. Smart, funny, splendid to look at and all with a beat you can dance to, this tribute to the Brothers Grimm, the sisters of the Second Wave and, not least, the indomitable Ms. Spears, is a delight.

Husband and wife director & choreographers Keone & Mari Madrid have collaborated with book writer Jon Hartmere to come up with a technicolor confection that’s clever enough to play dumb once in a while, giddy enough to make a few points along the way and so winningly performed it seems a collection of beauties, princesses, charmings and mermaids arrived fully formed from some magic land of Broadway make-believe. Upon closer inspection you’ll recognize some of them, including Justin Guarini of American Idol fame and more than a few stage productions here making a big leap into Broadway stardom.

But first, let’s talk Britney. She makes no appearance here, and no reference is made to her (though production notes indicate the songs were “fully authorized and licensed by Britney post-conservatorship”), but her spirit and tenacity – not to mention a musical catalogue that for many in the audience will likely be a gift they didn’t know they wanted – are sprinkled over this production like just so much of the dazzling “air sculpture” glitter bombs and fireflies devised by the talented Brooklyn-based artist Daniel Wurtzel. Once Upon a One More TIme is dotted with lovely moments that arrive and quickly float away like one of the levitating wine glasses or shape-shifting woodland birdies.

Aisha Jackson

Matthew Murphy

The premise, truth be told, is nothing Broadway audiences haven’t seen: A group of fairy tale stalwarts – Cinderella, Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, Rapunzel, the Princess with the Pea, the Little Mermaid, the evil Stepmother and her two selfish daughters, a fairy godmother and, of course, any number of too-perfect princes – is enough to populate any five productions of Into The Woods, and the sisters-are-doing-it-for-themselves ethos comes via Six, which came via Wicked.

But the wish-come-true of Once Upon a One More Time is that it lifts without apology or even a slight blush. Hartmere and the Madrids have taken the best of those shows and sprinkled their own personality all over ’em. Yes, we’ve seen these characters – not the original characters, the revisionist characters – before, the wiser modernized interpretations of their Grimm counterparts, more feminist, more lusty, more open to LGBTQ+ sympathies than anything from Golden Age Disney. What Six does for Tudor England Once Upon a One More Time does for long-fractured fairy tales.

But as a wise yet very bad wizard might have said – no, he’s not here – there’s one thing those shows haven’t got: Betty Friedan. Hartmere’s greatest stroke of inspiration is to magically introduce The Feminine Mystique, that Bible of ’60s feminism, into the mix. The good girls of fairy land – Snow and Cin and Rap and Pea and the rest – meet weekly for their “Scroll Club,” a precursor to Oprah’s Book Club long before any of them have actually seen a book, must less read one (they’re purposely kept uneducated and uninformed by the omniscient, tyrannical and terribly sexist Narrator, played by The Lehman Brother‘s Adam Godley).

Kept incurious and complacent – that goes true for the vain, dim-witted prince too – they’re content enough to rehash their own well-memorized, often-reenacted tales, ever on nervous guard for even the slightest variation or blooper that, they’re convinced, would prove disastrous for both themselves – they could get banished to the terrifying land of the “Story’s End” – and for the adorable little girl sets things in motion each day when she begins reading her favorite tales.

It’s Cinderella (the terrific Briga Heelan, in her Broadway debut) who only slowly begins to suspect that these age-old stories might not only be quite healthy for today’s little girls, or for herself. She begins to feel a vague dissatisfaction, the sort of emptiness so many American women of the 1950s might recognize. And just when she begins to ask questions of herself – does she really want to go limping shoeless night after night when the clock strikes 12, chased by a callow stranger whose greatest love is himself? – she’s visited by the long-banished, legendary OFG – Original Fairy Godmother – who, thrilled to be granting a wish that doesn’t involve fabric, provides Cin with, yes, a book. And not just any book, but the Friedan feminist classic.

Justin Guarini

Matthew Murphy

Before long, Cin’s intellectual inquisitiveness and dissatisfaction spread to the other women of fairy land, a transformation sealed when, through a brazen act of rule-breaking, the heroines discover that their Prince Charming and Prince Faithful and Prince whoever are actually one and the same (“Oops! … I Did It Again,” sings Guarini when the jig is up).

To spoil the plot beyond this would be unfair, even though you’ll likely see most of the twists and turns coming, or at least predict the overall story arc. There will be happy ever after, of course, and it will be in keeping with 21st Century sensibilities. But even revealing anything more, including who sings which Spears song – among them, “Toxic,” “Baby One More Time,” “Lucky,” “I Wanna Go,” “Crazy,” “If I’m Dancing,” “Passenger,” and “Work Bitch” – would be to spoil the musical’s many little treats. OK, Stepmother gets “Toxic” and “Work Bitch,” but you probably figured that already.

The adventure is played out on Anna Fleischle’s minimalist set beautifully augmented by Kenneth Posner’s pulsing lights, Sven Ortel’s storybook video projections, Loren Elstein’s witty costume and hair designs that meld classic fairy tale style (and Disney iconography, like the blue and yellow dress of Snow White) with post-Spice Girl flash, and the Andrew Keister-designed sound that any dance club would covet. The Madrids’ crisp choreography updates the stylized moves of classic Spears videos and boy band routines with athletic vitality and unexpected grace.

As appealing as those creative elements are, the project would fall flat without a cast as good as this one. To name just a sampling, Heelan’s Cinderella is the grounded center, with Aisha Jackson superb as bestie Snow White, Guarini all princely perfection, Godley making the most of a rather ill-defined Narrator, and Jennifer Simard stealing scene after scene as the deliciously wicked Stepmother.

Simard, who committed the same welcome thievery in the recent Company, is a marvelous singer with impeccable comic timing, her challenged in the laughs department by comedienne Brooke Dillman in a winningly broad comic performance as the Original Fairy Godmother, a turn that pays homage to the spirits of classic supporting (but invaluable) funny ladies like Mary Wickes and Jane Withers as much as it does to that groundbreaking feminist icon so freely quoted here. It’s the OFG who, near the end, gets to deliver one of the show’s sweetest little surprises, a grace note in a production that’s already won our hearts.

Title: Once Upon A One More Time
Venue: Broadway’s Marquis Theatre
Director & Choreographers: Keone & Mari Madrid
Book: Jon Hartmere
Music: The Hits Of Britney Spears
Principal Cast: Briga Heelan, Justin Guarini, Aisha Jackson, Jennifer Simard, Adam Godley, Brooke Dillman, Amy Hillner Larsen, Tess Soltau, Gabrielle Beckford, Ashley Chiu, Nathan Levy, Ryan Steele, Morgan Whitley, Lauren Zakrin, Mila Weir
Running time: 2 hr 30 min (including intermission)