(Written by Allison Brown)
After years of anticipating, New York Britney Spears fans will be delighted to finally unwrap the gift of jukebox musical, Once Upon a One More Time. Featuring the hits and deep cuts from the legend herself, the book portrays classic fairytale characters performing their stories for Little Girl (Mila Weir) on loop before bed. The most popular of all, Cinderella (Briga Heelan), begins to question if her story is truly “happy ever after” or if she wants more for her life. The Feminique Mystique suddenly appears in her eyesight from a previously banished O.F.G. (Brooke Dillman), or Original Fairy Godmother, causing Cinderella to question the status quo, and her perfect world begins to crumble. Jukebox musicals are always a crapshoot in terms of quality. A random selection of songs is generally shoehorned in to make a very loose story work. Thankfully, this show does not fall victim to these common mistakes. After its run in Washington, D.C. in 2021, I waited patiently for the opportunity to catch it on Broadway after hearing mixed reviews from theatregoers at other shows. While Once Upon a One More Time may not be perfect, it is an amusing little romp worthy of making one’s theatre radar.
Broadway aficionados will have difficulty ignoring the similarities between & Juliet and Once Upon a One More Time. Both shows have similar plots and an inclusion of songs from Britney’s catalogue, while they run concurrently on Broadway. I may be in the minority, but I adamantly disliked & Juliet. Despite talented performers in the company, I felt the plot was almost non-existent. Fortunately, Once Upon a One More Time is more successful in this regard. I found the story to be well constructed and compelling, leaving the audience with a strong feminist message. The jokes, mostly commentary on the focus on beauty over brains in this universe, land for the most part. It also has a lot in common with Six. In both, a collection of female popstar-esque characters debate over whose tragically damaged anti-feminist backstory is the worst, and finally stand up for themselves. The combination of the good concepts from both shows work to fortify this one.
When I saw Justin Guarini announced as the male lead, I will admit I was a bit worried about the production’s quality. I have never been so glad to be proved wrong. Guarini knows what kind of show he is in. He hams it up as Prince Charming, particularly in my favorite performance of the show: “Oops!… I Did It Again.” Prince Charming, Snow White (Salisha Thomas, Swing), and Little Mermaid (Lauren Zakrin) steal the show. I may be biased, as The Little Mermaid is one of my favorite films, but Zakrin gives a fantastic comedic performance. It shows a lot about her acting chops that she performs nearly the entire show without her voice, as we meet the character after she had exchanged it to the sea witch for legs. Thomas, who is only swing for Snow White, and Guarini outshine the rest of the company vocally by a long shot. Unfortunately, much of the cast displays weak vocals or sing-talk more than actually belt. Briga Heelan as lead Cinderella feels miscast; her vocals are nasally, and just do not feel up to par to match Thomas. She appears to have put on a baby voice for her character, which is perhaps to match Britney’s notable style, but it really didn’t work here. There are brief glimpses of her talent as power vocals come through on a song or two, but I was disappointed overall by her performance. I will commend Heelan, however, on her skill to maintain “Barbie-foot” for nearly an entire song while wearing only one glittering shoe.
There is really a missed opportunity for further integration of iconic Britney Spears nostalgia. I loved a reference to Britney’s success in the fragrance market; a character smells insubordination on O.F.G., and she reveals it is her perfume, Curious! I definitely owned the floral, teal-bottled Curious scent when it dropped in 2004. The integration of original “Oops!… I Did It Again” choreography in the song’s highlight is one of the best parts of the show. I wish there were more of this. Spears is known for being a dancer, and in my opinion, much of the choreography in the show falls flat. Perhaps some of Spears’ original dance moves may be too risqué for the family market this show seems to be targeting, but Spears is known for sensual dance that is sorely lacking. This censoring is done lyrically as well, but I will get into this more later. Britney is known for her iconic fashion, and it seems like at least one or two prominent music video or performance costumes could have been integrated into wardrobe. Instead, much of the costumes feel as if characters are Disneybounding, a mere suggestion of the Disney counterpart without copyright infringement. This alone feels quite odd, when the characters are supposed to be based on Grimms’ Fairy Tales rather than the Disney interpretation where the style originates.
The eclectic curation of music for the songbook is effective with a balanced mix of charting singles and more deep cuts. I was pleasantly surprised by the inclusion of “From the Bottom of My Broken Heart” from her debut and “Cinderella” from her third album, Britney. I was most confused by the inclusion of “Brightest Morning Star,” which I initially perceived to be original music. As a long-time fan, I have immense knowledge of her unreleased music, but I had never heard of this one. Upon deeper research, it became evident it was only a bonus track from Britney Jean, and to be honest, “Brightest Morning Star” is a weak song. Why include this one when Spears has a multitude of other released tracks that the audience would be excited to hear? It was a curious choice to rewrite a large portion of lyrics to have the songs better attuned to the narrative. I can’t recall seeing this tactic utilized in many other jukebox musicals. Although it takes some time to get used to, I was generally not bothered as the story progressed. However, the rewrite of “3” is too far gone from the original meaning of the song. Used by Guarini to hype up his goal to learn to read, it seems like a strange selection when he mentions a ménage à trois that would be a better fit a few scenes earlier. It is a bit conflicting when songs and choreography are desexualized from Spears’ aesthetic, but then the script still has these types of jokes included. Perhaps “Better” from Glory would have been more suited for that storyline?
Although this is not a problem isolated to this show, as much of Broadway post pandemic seems to struggle with it, the scenic design leaves a lot to be desired. Explosions of glitter and smoke are a joy to behold, but the set itself is very simple. There is one section right before intermission where I noticed the set remain exactly the same, nearly bare bones, for at least three to five consecutive songs. Surely, something better could have been implemented to show a passage of time or location.
Britney Spears is such an iconic performer that perhaps I had too high hopes for what this show would be. Despite my qualms with a lot of nitpicky details, I still highly recommend giving Once Upon a One More Time a chance—it’s a whimsically entertaining show. If one goes in not expecting Tony Award-winning material, they will not be disappointed by any means. The show does not take itself too seriously, and here that works. If & Juliet and Six had a baby, and strengthened the substance in the narrative, one would have this show. Make sure to stay after the final bow, as the cast returns for a mini concert performing Britney’s megamix!
“Well behaved princesses barely make history,” but Once Upon a One More Time will surely make its mark during its run at Marquis Theatre through November 19th.