There’s a newish formula to get your show to Broadway, though not necessarily to make it good: Take a well-used plot, add a vaguely feminist twist, and set it all to familiar pop music or approximations thereof. From those basic precepts, we’ve this past season gotten & Juliet (based on Shakespeare, featuring the songs of Max Martin) and Bad Cinderella (based on “Cinderella,” featuring the noodling of Andrew Lloyd Webber), and now, somewhere in the shaded area of their Venn diagram Once Upon a One More Time, which is based on “Cinderella” and other fairy tales and features the catalogue of Britney Spears, which includes a lot of Max Martin. If you run fast enough across Times Square, you might be able to see two Broadway takes on “Oops!… I Did It Again” in one evening. Given that Once Upon a One More Time follows those shows in this mini-genre (not to mention their sparkly, belty, much better fairy godmother Six), you might have reason to hope that it refines and improves upon the tropes. Instead, it’s reductive and pandering, hitting all the expected marks without any unique spark.
The musical’s premise is clever enough. In Jon Hartmere’s book, Cinderella (Briga Heelan of the late lamented Great News) and a group of other public-domain princesses work as professional reenactors of bedtime fairy tales. They have what amounts to Old Hollywood studio contracts, in that they have little say over their material, are constantly told they should be grateful for their happy endings, and are bossed around by a wispy mean man (Adam Godley’s Narrator) who talks down to them. At the outset, Cinderella feels a vague dissatisfaction with her life that she can’t quite articulate, whereupon the “notorious” Original Fairy Godmother (Brooke Dillman) appears and presents her with a copy of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique. Cinderella’s already a reader, and she leads her fellow princesses in a “scroll club” gathering, but the concepts of both bound pages and “the problem that has no name” are thrilling to her, so Friedan’s writing kicks off a consciousness-raising revolution in fairy-tale land. Soon, Cinderella is starting to insist on changes to her storyline, pissing off the Narrator, her prince (From Justin to Kelly’s Justin Guarini), and her evil stepmother (the eternally underutilized Jennifer Simard).
There’s a version of Once Upon a One More Time that could take that set-up and whip it into a camp meringue, but what you see onstage deflates into being ponderous and heavy-handed. The fault is largely with Jon Hartmere’s book, full of jokes that run from cleverly annoying, as when none of the princesses are familiar with sliced bread, to plainly groan-inducing, when Cinderella announces that “well-behaved princesses rarely make history.” That’s how all the political critiques go, stopping at the point of fridge-magnet quotations. The notion that Cinderella has cause to be dissatisfied even in a superficially happy life, which is potentially interesting, is undermined once she discovers that her prince is also cheating on her with all the other princesses. Suddenly, we’ve gone from a story about a woman searching for meaning to many women getting mad at a guy.
The husband-and-wife directing-and-choreographing team, Keone and Mari Madrid, have put together some excitingly big dance sequences that reference and in a few cases directly quote Britney’s music-video choreography (though with too much reliance on TikTok-friendly hand motions), but they come up short with bodies at rest. Their blocking in book scenes tends toward inert and the cast’s performances are flattened to loud sameness. In their “scroll club,” the princesses sit in a line across the front of the stage, awkwardly cheating toward the audience while pretending to talk to one another. Heelan carves out an arc for Cinderella, progressing from overprettified princess accent to a more confident character, and Guarini chews every bit of scenery he can overplaying swagger for comedic effect, but they’re both working uphill. Anna Fleischle’s scenic design puts all the action inside of a large black box that makes you feel like you’re watching an undergraduate class diorama, with a hideous video screen at the back of the set. It creates a monotonous sameness, one that leaves you zoning out and thinking about, for instance, the way in which the characters mimic the established color palettes and personalities of Disney princesses (Cinderella’s clothes are pale blue) without crossing over into copyright infringement. The only one of Snow White’s dwarves we meet is named Clumsy. He’s also gay, which to the show’s credit is further than Disney would go but about on par with the queer B-plots of Bad Cinderella and & Juliet.
The advantage that Once Upon a One More Time does have over its competition is its heaps and heaps of Britney, bitch. They run through all of the hits, kicking off with “…Baby One More Time,” with the lyrics lightly rewritten: Max Martin’s sorta-gibberish “hit me baby one more time” is now the new gibberish of “once upon a one more time.” The musical never gives any explicit justification why the characters are singing Britney’s hits, which means that you have to free-associate between its plot and Britney’s troubled public life. From an angle, maybe we’re meant to see the princesses’ coddled fairy-tale prisons as her conservatorship, or draw a line between the woes of being too famous too young and believing that a “happily ever after” is achievable with a quick trip to the ball in a pumpkin turned carriage. You’re also left with the anxiety-inducing consideration of whether this is all supportive of Britney or just another large venture monetizing her. The production’s development began when Britney was in that conservatorship, but has claimed in vague terms that she gave it her full approval thereafter. There was no word from Britney herself until she called the show “funny, smart and brilliant” just before opening.
That’s a heavy amount of meta-text, all leaning against a show with a book and music that’s too simple to sustain the weight. Britney’s biggest hits, the ones the audience most wants to see, are generally declarative, get-dancing statements, which can be lots of fun but stall any forward motion of a narrative. The highlights come when Jennifer Simard’s Stepmother storms onstage to “Work Bitch” (references to Maserati and Bugatti have been replaced with “posh carriage” and “hot marriage”) and later on, when she chases around Godley’s narrator while singing “Toxic.” I felt like Goldilocks, who does appear among the other fairy-tale beings: When the characters started singing, I wondered what this had to do with the storyline. When the characters started talking, I wanted to get back to the Broadway Sings Britney concert. By the end of the show, Once Upon a One More Time sloughs off any semblance of a plot and heads, probably wisely, toward the latter. There is (of course) a rousing megamix after the curtain calls, during which the wristband you’ve been handed as you enter the theater starts to light up and glimmer along to the beat. It’s a fun enough concert, though not worth sitting through two hours and 30 minutes of a dull musical to get there.
Once Upon a One More Time is at the Marquis Theatre.