By: Samuel L. Leiter
June 25, 2023: Jukebox musicals, as I’ve written before, typically use one of several templates to present a medley of well-known songs from one or more writers, singers, groups, or genres. They either present a bookless playlist (Smokey Joe’s Cafe); use the music to tell a story with some biographical relation—fully plotted or merely outlined—to the artists represented (Carole King, Cher, the Temptations, Michael Jackson, Neil Diamond, etc.); thread the songs through a preexisting text (Head over Heels); or tie the songs together by means of a fictional plot (Mamma Mia!). Once Upon a One More Time, the engaging new show at the Marquis Theatre featuring the songs of Britney Spears, belongs to the final category.
Although only 41, Spears’s personal story is dramatic enough to serve as the basis for a bio-musical, of course, especially in light of her recent legal battle to gain control of her career from her father’s hands; that raw story will have to wait years before it becomes Broadway fodder, if it ever does. For the time being, the Princess of Pop’s legions of fans will make do with hearing her hugely popular songs scattered through yet another script set in a land of overly familiar fairytale characters, led by the ubiquitous Cinderella (Briga Heelan, wonderful in her Broadway bow). Poor Cindy’s most recent vehicle, Bad Cinderella, of course, did not live happily ever after this past season. For years, theatre people have been complaining about the Disneyfication of Broadway. Add another brick to that wall.
The show, itself something of a Cinderella story, was conceived in 2017 before traveling a bumpy road to Broadway. Its planned 2019 Chicago premiere was delayed until 2020 only for Covid to bring about its cancellation. It finally opened in Washington, D.C., in late 2021, did very well, and moved on to Broadway’s Marquis, the glass slipper into which it fits its lavish, pumped-up production values, ready to woo even those who wouldn’t know a Britney from a Brittany.
Jon Hartmere’s book imagines a magical world overseen by a creepily dominating male Narrator (the brilliant Adam Godley, so outstanding in The Lehman Brothers), whom the script envisions as something like an authoritative stage director; he takes us, through the eyes of a young child (Mila Weir when I attended), into the world of six fairytale princesses, Cinderella, Snow White (Aisha Jackson), Rapunzel (Gabrielle Beckford), Sleeping Beauty (Ashley Chiu), Princess Pea (Morgan Wheatley), and Little Mermaid (Lauren Zakrin), the latter, as per her tale, mute—until she isn’t. The princesses—all of them perfectly cast—belong to a “scroll club,” i.e., a book club, where their reading is limited to the old fairytales that make women subordinate to men, and where romance doesn’t necessarily lead to happily ever after.
However, Original Fairy Godmother, a.k.a. the Notorious O.F.G. (the broadly comic Brooke Dillman), gifts Cinderella a copy of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, which opens up a can of Women’s Lib worms as the ladies seek liberation from patriarchal constraints, hoping to defang the harmful influences of the traditional narratives. The Narrator, insisting that the stories remain as they always were, ruthlessly tries to suppress the new versions the women seek to tell, but even he, at last, is forced to accept their needs. Along the way, this being 2023, there’s also a gay subplot so no one feels left out.
Figuring importantly in all this are Cinderella’s stepmother, played by the sensational Jennifer Simand, (Company),a comic knockout in a dryly satiric portrayal; her stepsisters Belinda (Ryann Redmond) and Betany (Tess Soltau), both delightfully silly; and, naturally, Prince Charming, “American Idol” notable Justin Guarini coming into his own as a hilariously illiterate, narcissistically preening womanizer. He has all the moves, sings like a rock star, and shows great comic creds, at one point stopping the show with a priceless facial expression when caught in a compromising situation. If anybody ever does a Tom Jones jukebox musical, this is your guy.
Living happily ever after, or, at any rate, a long and happy life, is quite possibly in store for the show, if the response of the fans when I attended with my 32-year-old granddaughter, Briar, who knew every song and in-joke, is any indication. I admit to being more aware of Britney Spears through her celebrity notoriety than through her music (although I recognized a couple of the more earwormy ones), but the adoration of her manifested by the excited audience augurs well for the show’s future. I predict many will return, as the lyric goes, “one more time,” so they can boast, “Oops! . . . I did it again.”
A lot of expense has gone into Anna Fleischle’s toweringly impressive set, which makes much use of fanciful flying units, often outlined in neon, while overhead floats a huge glass globe resembling a disco ball. Dynamic projections by Sven Ortel make a powerful impact as well. Kenneth Posner’s complex lighting plot uses hundreds of sources to shoot beams this way and that as per any modern rock concert worth its salt, while Loren Elstein’s glittery costumes, like so many others on Broadway today, make you think maybe an investment in the sequin business might not be such a bad idea.
In essence, Once Upon . . . resembles a two and a half-hour music video, with one mostly upbeat company number after the other, co-choreographed by co-directors Keone and Mari Madrid, a husband and wife team with extensive TV choreography credits. Major director David Leveaux is credited as “creative consultant.” The movements, making much use of hand gestures and robotic movements, do get repetitive, but they’re nonetheless fun to watch.
Around two dozen numbers are included, among them the title song, “Work Bitch,” “Cinderella,” “Toxic,” and “Stronger.” They’re sometimes forced into the narrative with little obvious connection, but in this kind of musical, you have to accept the lack of organic connection between songs and book. Once Upon . . . , even if it runs for years, will be remembered for its entertainment value within the 2020s zeitgeist, not for its artistic rivalry with the likes of Sondheim or Webber.
During the curtain number, “Till the World Ends,” plastic bracelets, given to each audience member when they enter, light up so you can wave your shining wrist around in the darkened house, embracing the show’s rumbustious concert vibe. And when the show ends you can line up with the crowds at a number of glass-enclosed booths labeled with song titles to take photos. Go to have fun, not to ponder the meaning of existence.
Once Upon a One More Time ****
210 W. 46th Street, NYC
Photography: Mathew Murphy