Bad Cinderella could have been the poison apple that killed off revisionist fairy tales for good, but Britney Spears and Once Upon A One More Time, the new Broadway musical that opens tonight and is full of her hits and high spirits, have come along to give an unexpected and charming happy ending. This tribute to the Brothers Grimm, the girls of the Second Wave, and the unstoppable Ms. Spears is smart, funny, beautiful, and has a beat you can dance to.
Keone and Mari Madrid, a husband-and-wife team who direct and choreograph, worked with book writer Jon Hartmere to create a technicolor confection that is smart enough to play dumb sometimes, silly enough to make a few points along the way, and so well performed that it seems like a group of beauties, princesses, charming, and mermaids came fully formed from some magical land of Broadway make-believe. Some of them are well-known, like Justin Guarini from American Idol, and more than a few of the stage shows here are making a big jump to Broadway.
But let’s talk about Britney first. The songs were “fully authorized and licensed by Britney post-conservatorship,” according to the production notes, but she doesn’t show up and nothing is said about her. However, her spirit and tenacity, as well as a musical catalog that many people in the audience probably didn’t know they wanted, are sprinkled all over this production like so many of the dazzling “air sculpture” glitter bombs and fireflies made by the talented Brooklyn-based company. Once Upon One More Time is full of lovely moments that come and go quickly, like the wine glasses that float or the birds that can change their shape.
The premise is nothing Broadway audiences haven’t seen before: 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 any number of too-perfect princes are enough to fill any five productions of Into the Woods, and the idea that the sisters are doing it for themselves comes from Six, which came from Wicked.
But the best thing about Once Upon One More Time is that it doesn’t apologize or even blush when it lifts. Hartmere and the Madrids took the best parts of those shows and added their own style to them. Yes, we’ve seen these characters before, but not the original ones.
Instead, we’ve seen the “revisionist” versions of them, which are more feminist, sexier, and accepting of LGBTQ+ people than anything from Disney’s Golden Age. Once Upon a Time Does for Broken Fairy Tales What Six Does for Tudor England.
But, as a wise but very bad wizard might have said – no, he’s not here – there’s one thing those shows don’t have: Betty Friedan. Hartmere’s best idea is to suddenly add The Feminine Mystique, the feminist bible of the 1960s, to the mix.
The good girls of fairyland—Snow, Cin, Rap, Pea, and the rest—meet every week for “Scroll Club,” a precursor to Oprah’s Book Club, even though none of them have ever even seen a book, let alone read one. The Narrator, played by The Lehman Brothers’ Adam Godley, keeps them uneducated and uninformed on purpose.
Kept ignorant and lazy, just like the vain, stupid prince, they’re happy to retell their own well-known, often-acted stories, always on the lookout for the slightest change or mistake that, they’re sure, would be bad for both them and the cute little girl who sets things in motion every day when she starts reading her favorite book.
Cinderella, played by the great Briga Heelan in her Broadway debut, is the one who slowly starts to think that these old stories might be good for both little girls today and for herself. She starts to feel a vague sense of unhappiness, the kind of emptiness that a lot of American women in the 1950s would know.
And just as she starts to question herself—does she really want to limp around without shoes every night at 12 o’clock, being chased by a young stranger whose biggest love is himself?—the clock hits 12. She is visited by the famous OFG, or Original Fairy Godmother, who has been banished for a long time. Cin’s wish doesn’t involve fabric, so the OFG gives Cin a book. And not just any book; it was the feminist classic by Friedan.
Soon, Cin’s intellectual curiosity and dissatisfaction spread to the other women of the fairyland. This change was sealed when the heroines broke a rule and found out that their Prince Charming, Prince Faithful, and Prince whoever were all the same person (“Oops!… I Did It Again,” sings Guarini when the jig is up).
It wouldn’t be fair to tell you more about the plot at this point, even though you can probably guess most of the twists and turns or at least the general story arc. There will be a happy ending, of course, and it will fit with how people think in the 21st century.
But to say anything else, like who sings which Spears songs like “Toxic,” “Baby One More Time,” “Lucky,” “I Wanna Go,” “Crazy,” “If I’m Dancing,” “Passenger,” and “Work Bitch,” would be to ruin the musical’s many little treats. OK, Stepmother gets “Toxic” and “Work Bitch,” but you surely knew that already.
Anna Fleischle’s minimalist set, Kenneth Posner’s pulsing lights, Sven Ortel’s storybook video projections, and Loren Elstein’s clever costume and hair designs that mix classic fairy tale style (and Disney iconography, like Snow White’s blue and yellow dress) with post-Spice Girl flash, and Andrew Keister’s sound design that any dance club would want, all add to the adventure. The Madrids’ clean dancing brings the stylized moves from old Britney Spears videos and boy band routines up to date with athletic energy and unexpected grace.