‘Once Upon a One More Time’: a classic tale told anew to the tune of Britney Spears

The Original Fairy Godmother with assembled princesses in "Once Upon A One More Time."
The Original Fairy Godmother with assembled princesses in “Once Upon A One More Time.”
Matthew Murphy

If there was such a thing as a “summer beach musical,” “Once Upon a One More Time” would be it. Bright, fast, familiar, and just good fun, the show makes no demands on the audience other than to sit back and enjoy the ride.

The slight story of fairytale princesses seeking their authentic identities as women through the writings of Betty Friedan (“The Feminine Mystique” of all things), is about as silly as it gets, but the show’s book by John Hartmere plays with the fairtytale tropes even as it pokes fun at itself. In the vein of summer entertainment, it does have a serious side, and it’s done, as the genre demands, with a light touch, showing how we’re prisoners of our stories, both cultural and internalized. It’s not particularly original; we saw this in “Into the Woods,” “Matilda,” most new Disney movies, and others, but it’s easy to love a classic tale when it’s told anew.

The songs are drawn from the catalog made popular by Britney Spears. Yes, that means it’s a jukebox musical with the songs sometimes feeling just right and sometimes feeling shoe-horned in, but it’s fresh and catchy, particularly for those of us who are not intimately familiar with Ms. Spears’ oeuvre. At the performance I saw, the audience was full of people who were, and cheers would go up as familiar chords pounded through the speakers. 

Oh, and did I mention this is loud? I’m not a denizen of arena shows, but I’m guessing this is as close as Broadway gets to that kind of large-scale extravaganza. In other words, this isn’t Ibsen, Strindberg, or even Sondheim, so a different kind of engagement seems just right — to steal Goldilock’s favorite metric of measurement. 

The staging is dazzling. Directors and choreographers Keone and Mari Madrid, who have worked on Cirque du Soleil and a ton of TV dance shows, have created breathtaking dances filled with exceptional athleticism. It feels very much of the moment, pushing the boundaries of what we think dance on Broadway is — and what dancers can do. The Madrids seem to be very much at the vanguard of making Broadway dance cutting edge, much as Agnes DeMille was with “Oklahoma” 80 years ago and redefining it for a new generation. 

The company is sensational as well. You may very well find yourself wondering how they do this eight times a week. The singing is not bel canto; it’s full-on, belted pop, and it’s exciting. Brigga Heelan brings it as Cinderella, whose story of a happily ever after isn’t what it’s cracked up to be, is at the center of the story. “American Idol” alum and now a Broadway veteran, Justin Guarnis is superb as Prince Charming: dumb, clueless, and sexy. Leading his fellow princes through “Oops!…I Did It Again” is hilarious. One of Hartmere’s sly and subtle touches in the book is to make Charming everyone’s prince, essentially saying that conventional, cisgender men can be as trapped in their roles as women. Brooke Dillman is great as O.F.G. (Original Fairy Godmother), and Jennifer Simard, who is always sensational, delivers a “Toxic” that stops the show — and puts her squarely in the running for a Tony. Adam Godley, late of “The Lehman Trilogy,” is having a little lighter time of it here, giving a winning performance as the Narrator, who Hartmere has written as a kind of demented super-ego for the world of the show and who has to learn that “the way it’s always been” may need to change. The rest of the company is exuberant, talented, and clearly having a blast. 

Anna Fleischle’s scenery is excellent. Loren Elstein’s costumes and hair design give a nod to our Disney-inculcated images of the princesses while adding dramatic shots of originality. Kenneth Posner’s lighting simply dazzles—and is an impressive technological feat. 

If you’re inclined to cavil at the crowd-pleasing nature of this piece, let me point out that the show was developed and produced by the Shakespeare Theater Company in Washington, DC. The bard knew how to wow and audience in his own way, too. 

By far my favorite image, though, was when I left the theater and saw the line of moms buying copies of “The Feminine Mystique” for their daughters. Message received. 

“Once Upon A One More Time” | Marquis Theatre | 210 West 46th Street | Tues., Thurs., Fri. 7 p.m.; Weds., Sat. 2 p.m. & 8 p.m.; Sun. 3 p.m. | Tickets from $59.752 hours, 45 mins, 1 intermission