Broadway Review of “Once Upon A Time Once More”: In this wickedly charming musical, Britney Spears and Betty Friedan venture into the woods.

Broadway Review of “Once Upon A Time Once More”: In this wickedly charming musical, Britney Spears and Betty Friedan venture into the woods.

Although Britney Spears and Once Upon A One More Time, the new Broadway musical that opens tonight and is brimming with her hits and high spirits, has come along to deliver a happy ever after that is as unexpected as it is enchanting. Bad Cinderella could have been the poison apple that killed off revisionist fairy tales once and for all. This tribute to the Brothers Grimm, the sisters of the Second Wave, and, not least, the indomitable Ms. Spears is a delight. It is smart, funny, beautiful to look at, and has a beat you can dance to.

Keone and Mari Madrid, husband and wife choreographers and directors, and author Jon Hartmere worked together to create a technicolor confection that is clever enough to occasionally play dumb, giddy enough to make a few points, and so well performed that it looks like a collection of beauties, princesses, charmings, and mermaids arrived fully formed from some magical land of Broadway make-believe. You will recognize some of them upon closer inspection, such as Justin Guarini of American Idol fame and a number of stage productions here making a significant leap into Broadway stardom.

But let’s talk about Britney first. Although production notes state that the songs were “fully authorized and licensed by Britney post-conservatorship,” her spirit and tenacity, in addition to a musical catalog that will likely be a gift for many in the audience that they didn’t know they wanted, are sprinkled throughout this production like just so much of the dazzling “air sculpture” glitter bombs and fireflies created by the talented Brooklyn-based artist Daniel Wurtzel. Although she doesn’t make an appearance or are mentioned in any way, this Like one of the levitating wine glasses or the shape-shifting woodland birds, lovely moments in Once Upon a One More Time appear and vanish quickly.

Truth be told, 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, of course, any number of too-perfect princes are sufficient to populate any five productions of Into The Woods. The sisters-are-doing-it-for-themselves ethos originated in Six, which was followed by Wicked.

However, Once Upon a One More Time fulfills its wish by lifting without apologies or even a slight blush. Hartmere and the Madrids have taken the best of those shows and sprinkled their own character all over them. Yes, we have seen these characters before—not the original characters, but the revisionist characters. These characters are more feminist, lusty, and open to LGBTQ+ sympathies than anything from Golden Age Disney. They are more modernized versions of their Grimm counterparts. What Six does for Tudor England, Once Upon a Time does for fairy tales that have been broken up for a long time.

However, as a wise but extremely evil wizard might have stated—no, he is not here—those shows lack one thing: Friedan, Betty. The Feminine Mystique, the bible of 1960s feminism, being magically incorporated into the mix is Hartmere’s greatest inspiration. Snow, Cin, Rap, Pea, and the rest of the good girls of fairy land meet weekly for their “Scroll Club,” which is a precursor to Oprah’s Book Club. This occurs long before any of the girls have even seen a book, much less read one (they are purposely kept ignorant and ignorant by the omniscient, tyrannical, and terribly sexist Narrator, played by Adam Godley from The Lehman Brothers).

They are content to rehash their own well-memorized, frequently reenacted tales, ever on nervous guard for even the slightest variation or blooper that, they are convinced, would prove disastrous for both themselves – they could be banished to the terrifying land of the “Story’s End” – and for the adorable little girl sets things in motion each day when she begins reading her favorite tales. They are kept incurious and complacent, and the vain, dim-witted

It is the fantastic Briga Heelan, making her Broadway debut as Cinderella, who slowly begins to wonder if these classic tales might not only be good for today’s young girls or for herself. She begins to experience a vague sense of dissatisfaction, similar to the hollowness that many 1950s American women felt. And just as she begins to question herself, she is confronted with the question, “Does she really want to go limping without shoes night after night when the clock strikes twelve?” and is pursued by a callous stranger whose greatest love is himself. Cin receives a book when she receives a visit from the legendary, long-banished Original Fairy Godmother, who is delighted to be fulfilling a wish that does not involve fabric. Furthermore, in addition to any book, however the Friedan women’s activist work of art.

Cin’s intellectual curiosity and dissatisfaction soon spread to the other women of fairy land. This transformation is sealed when the heroines discover that their Prince Charming, Prince Faithful, and Prince whoever are actually the same person (“Oops!… When the jig is over, Guarini sings, “I Did It Again.”

Even though the majority of the plot twists and turns are likely to be foreseen, or at least the overall story arc can be predicted, it would be unfair to give any further spoilers. Naturally, there will be happiness forever, and it will be in line with modern sensibilities. However, spoiling the musical’s many little delights, including who sings which Spears songs—including “Toxic,” “Baby One More Time,” “Lucky,” “I Wanna Go,” “Crazy,” “If I’m Dancing,” “Passenger,” and “Work Bitch,” among others—would be too much to ask. Yes, Stepmother qualifies as “Toxic” and “Work Bitch,” but you probably already knew that.

Anna Fleischle’s minimalist set is beautifully enhanced by pulsing lights by Kenneth Posner, storybook video projections by Sven Ortel, Loren Elstein’s witty costumes and hair designs that combine post-Spice Girl flash with classic fairy tale style (and Disney iconography, like Snow White’s blue and yellow dress), and the Andrew Keister-designed sound that would be coveted by any dance club. The Madrids’ crisp choreography injects athletic vitality and unexpected grace into the stylized moves from classic Spears videos and boy band routines.

Even though those creative elements are appealing, the project would not succeed without a stellar cast. To give just a few examples, Heelan’s Cinderella is the grounded center, with Aisha Jackson as Snow White’s best friend, Guarini playing the prince in absolute perfection, Godley making the most of a somewhat unclear Narrator, and Jennifer Simard stealing scene after scene as the delectably wicked Stepmother.

Simard, who committed the same welcome theft in the recent Company, is a wonderful singer with impeccable comic timing. Comedienne Brooke Dillman, who plays the Original Fairy Godmother, challenges Simard for laughs in a winningly broad comedy performance. Her turn honors the spirits of classic supporting (but invaluable) funny ladies like Mary Wickes and Jane Withers as much as it does that groundbreaking feminist icon that is freely quoted here. In a production that has already won our hearts, the OFG gets to deliver one of the show’s sweetest little surprises near the end.

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