Theater Review: ‘Once Upon a One More Time’ with Britney Spears songs will drive you crazy

NEW YORK — You’re handed an LED wristband as you enter “Once Upon a One More Time,” a musical on Broadway stuffed with Britney Spears songs. But the gift is strangely inert for the whole show, only coming to life and gleaming at the curtain call. It’s not a wristband — it’s a metaphor. It glows in the end because you are free. Free of this bombastic, patronizing, clumsy, lazy show.

“Once Upon a One More Time,” which opened Thursday at the Marquis Theatre, is pure summer dumb — it’s got smoke machines working overtime, weird dance breaks, tons of glitter and every song ends with a manufactured IMAX-level sonic boom. One of the main characters actually swings on a chandelier.

Everything about it seems recycled: A fractured fairy tale that is a tired concept by now — no less a giant than Andrew Lloyd Webber failed with it with “Bad Cinderella” this spring. It’s also a safe feminist story about women writing their own story led by a creative team led mostly by men, an enduring problem on Broadway but very awkward for a story about princesses seizing their narrative.

The musical has a story written by Jon Hartmere about classic fairy tale princesses — Cinderella, Snow White, Rapunzel and the Little Mermaid, among them, (gathered just as they were in the movie “Ralph Breaks the Internet”) — who are transformed after reading “The Feminine Mystique,” a landmark feminist text. Betty Friedan’s book helped launch the women’s movement by depicting women as prisoners of a culture that made a fetish out of motherhood and housework.

Why Friedan has been brought low here is unclear, or even why a post-conservatorship Spears authorized this unsubtle musical, which includes many of her hits like “Oops!… I Did It Again,” “Lucky,” “Stronger” and “Toxic.” The creators have hollowed out the original song’s lyrics to shoehorn a narrative they are not suited for. They’ve then added them to a script that mixes a threesome joke, drunk princesses and references to Howard Stern with lines like “You’re not pulling my slipper?”

Adam Godley is delightful as the droll, fussy Narrator, who is like the backstage ringmaster of fairy tales, ordering about the princesses — “Ready the wedding scene!” — and standing in the way of change or growth. “Real quick, though, this is happy ever after — right?” asks Cinderella. “Of course,” he answers. It’s not.

The musical is directed and choreographed by husband-and-wife pair Keone and Mari Madrid, who have gone viral on YouTube for their dance videos, but here seem fascinated by weird, jerky arm movements that suggest the performer is having a seizure. For “One More Time,” they go overboard on index fingers pointing.

That’s not to take anything from the two leads — Briga Heelan as Cinderella and former “American Idol” contestant Justin Guarini as Prince Charming — who use their pipes, physical comedy skills and tenderness to sell a script many levels below their capabilities. They are truly fairy tale heroic.

It is a story that veers in tone from glib satire to sugary sentimentality, trying to establish a sisterhood it hasn’t earned and adding a gay-rights story that seems tacked on and distracting. There’s a remarkable shift in Act 2 that remakes the Narrator into a horrific Marvel Cinematic Universe-level villain who murders all who disobey him. A desperate attempt to make a coherent happy ending fails.

It certainly is Spears’ moment on Broadway, since many of her hits are also in “& Juliet” — a jukebox musical now on Broadway that celebrates one of her writing partners and producers, Max Martin — including her “… Baby One More Time” and “Stronger.” That show is in every way better than “Once Upon a One More Time,” which is clearly designed to be a pre-teen magnet and sell T-shirts. Only one Spears show on Broadway is truly “Toxic.”


Mark Kennedy is at

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