While it is debatable that the life of the newly emancipated Britney Spears is a fairy tale at present, the singer’s catalog of hits surely has the feel of a fable with feminist-forward empowerment. That’s what writer Jon Hartmere and director-choreographers Keone and Mari Madrid use as the basis for “Once Upon a One More Time,” their Broadway twist on staid, storybook romanticism and tired male-centric tropes. With its giddy, surprisingly caustic script and rapier-fast score, this pop-musical course correction (authorized by Spears, post-conservatorship) is built for speed and social awareness.
For the Madrids (known for their work with Justin Bieber and BTS) and Hartmere (who penned 2017’s cinematic dramedy “The Upside”), the goal of empowering women, crushing the patriarchy and rejecting servitude to Peter Pan-like princes is no easy task . First, we must get through a young girl’s bedtime readings of fairy tales filled with docile female leads who place their men on pedestals.
Such fairy tale readings are cleverly presented here as a harried backstage version of the bedtime ritual, with a narrator (a Svengali-like director played by Adam Godley) making certain that each of his conveyor-belt beauties stick to the script. Depicting misogynistic fairy tales as if they were Hollywood-style vehicles is a nice touch.
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And while that group of fairy-tale femmes include a dim-witted Snow White (Aisha Jackson), a voiceless Little Mermaid (Lauren Zakrin), a haughty Rapunzel (Gabrielle Beckford) and a meek Sleeping Beauty (Ashley Chiu) — all willing to wait patiently for their man — one heroine is suddenly lonely and unsatisfied: Cinderella (Briga Heelan).
Tired of looking pretty on command and doing little else, Cinderella begins pushing against her so-called fabulous routine and her shallow relationship with the callow Prince Charming (Justin Guarini). Cinderella also becomes more ill at ease in the already-bad bosom of her lousy step-family (Jennifer Simard, Tess Soltau, Amy Hillner Larson) and falls into the arms — and independent mind — of rogue Original Fairy Godmother (Brooke Dillman).
Once the OFG presents Cin with a copy of Betty Friedan’s “The Feminine Mystique,” all hell breaks loose. The cracks in the patriarchy are revealed (Snow White getting kissed without consent, while sleeping, amounts to assault), and “happily ever after” is no longer guaranteed. Especially when Cinderella, Snow White and the ladies in waiting discover that their Prince is more cad than charmer: the same one-size-fits-all prince appearing in each of these women’s stories. The fairy princesses go on strike, the evil Stepmother gets spiteful with a plan that goes sadly wrong, and the narrator rages, deploying banishment as a weapon of mass destruction. In the end cooler heads prevail and equity reigns supreme, albeit with a too-neatly wrapped bow around a complex problem.
Tackling gender roles and power dynamics never sounded as good as it does in “Once Upon a One More Time,” in which Spears’ songs are diligently retro-fitted to the message without sounding jimmied into place. When the mean stepsisters belittle Cinderella for her attempts at a leg up, Soltau and Hillner Larson go into hilarious, hardcore gangster-rap mode for the electro-pulsing “Work Bitch.” When the betrayed princesses find out about the cheating Charming’s unprincely ways, up comes a huffy “Womanizer.”
The most illustrative songs — the show-stopping medley of “Circus,” “Sometimes” and a teasing “Oops!… I Did It Again” — come from Guarani, the one-time “American Idol” contestant who chews the scenery as a Lothario with a wildly soulful vocal range. From his bass-y low notes to his falsetto highs (to say nothing of his ’90s-appropriate dance moves), Guarini is equal doses of Prince and Marvin Gaye at their bad, bad best. When it comes to gritty R&B and cynical showiness, credit, respectively, Jackson’s driven-Snow (White) solo riffs and Simmard’s icy un-maternal meanness for top tier vocal performances. Between the musical’s most energetic musical numbers, Beckford’s Rapunzel and Dillman’s OFG make most of their finest spit-take moments.
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The choreography of the Madrids is cheerfully rich in the best (and worst, which works humorously in the context of Britney-pop) of ’80s and ’90s dance moves. A boldly energetic hodgepodge of overheated Janet Jackson “Control”-era military twitches, Cabbage Patch swirls, Snake rolls and Typewriter crabwalks, from a team of a dozen-plus dancers, fill scenic designer’s Anna Fleischle’s high, wide and muted-colorful set. From the movable mini-stage for Prince Charming’s hammy arrivals to the movie-set fantasias that switch with Cinderella’s every thought, no corner of Fleischle’s staging goes unused. The feathery quill in the glass ball hanging over the stage is distracting (it relates to an uncharacteristically subtle element of the finale), but you’ll learn to live with it.
Although clever in how he matches the true inequities of womanhood to those who lamely maintain fairy tale traditions, Hartmere’s often-witty script is oddly paced at first, and takes more than half the first act to kick in. Thanks to “Into the Woods,” audiences are used to deconstructing fairy tales, so if you’re going to tackle Snow White and Cinderella you’ve got to hit it quick and move forward. Godley (“The Lehman Trilogy”), meanwhile, is sadly underused more than “Once,” without much bile to spew or teeth to gnash until the second act.
Still, the message and the music of “Once Upon a One More Time” mostly avoid heavy-handedness, telling this updated fairy tale with equity, energy and originality.