From the moment you walk into Sidney Harman Hall at the Shakespeare Theatre Company, there is no question of what production you are about to see. While some walk around with sparkling tiaras atop their heads, others pose in a blinged out selfie booth. Even the lobby’s Christmas tree has received a pop princess makeover, with ornaments depicting images or tokens from well-loved fairy tales.
At first, the plot of “Once Upon a One More Time” seems a bit ridiculous, albeit intriguing enough based on the title (tiaras off to whoever came up with that, by the way). Fairytale princesses reading Betty Friedan’s “The Feminine Mystique” while singing the music of Britney Spears? But let me tell you, it is genius. This Broadway-bound jukebox musical combines what we love about fairytales with fierce feminism and music from the ever-fabulous Britney Spears. What else could you possibly want in a musical?
The production tells the story of classic fairytale characters as they wait for the Little Girl (alternating between Adrianna Weir and Mila Weir) to choose a bedtime story. In this reimagined version of “...Baby One More Time,” Spears’ original lyrics get a clever twist (“pick my once upon a time”) as characters wait for the Narrator (Michael McGrath) to begin their stories. Over and over and over again. They are forced to relive their stories night after night, until Cinderella (Briga Heelan) finally begins to question if there is more than this forced idea of happily ever after.
After a scroll club meeting with Snow White (Aisha Jackson), Sleeping Beauty (Ashley Chiu), Little Mermaid (Lauren Zakrin), Princess and the Pea (Morgan Weed), and Rapunzel (Wonu Ogunfowora) (side note- full of nods to the princess’ original stories, this sassy scroll club meeting is absolutely brilliant), Cinderella makes a wish for a new story and control over her life.
Out pops the notorious O.F.G. (Original Fairy Godmother), played by the hilarious Brooke Dillman, as she explains she has been waiting years for a princess to question her so-called happily ever after. Gifting Cinderella a copy of Betty Friedan’s “The Feminine Mystique,” O.F.G. encourages Cinderella to find answers and discover her own story. As she realizes her entire life has been a lie, Cinderella leads her friends on a quest for their real happily ever after.
With a laugh-out-loud book from Jon Hartmere and 23 songs originally recorded and performed by Spears, this spunky musical will certainly be able to hold its own on Broadway. Admittedly though, as much as I hate to say it, the ending of this otherwise perfect production is a bit lackluster. The entire production leads up to this moment, and yet it feels a bit rushed and haphazard. It feels like it’s been thrown in at the last minute, and the cheesy dialogue doesn’t match the rest of this snappy production.
Thankfully, while some of the dialogue may wane, the talent of the performers does not. With a wide array of Spears content to choose from, it’s fascinating to see which character belts out which song. Heelen’s expert combination of Broadway style and pop melodies is echoed by her fellow princesses as they easily take on Spears’ biggest hits. Aisha Jackson lets out a heck of a belt in her song “From the Bottom of my Broken Heart” as she pours out soulful notes that are rich with hurt and passion. Little Mermaid is the other standout, giving Lauren Zakrin a shining moment in “If I’m Dancing,” and let me tell you, it is a crying shame that her character is mute for most of the show. Although it may be brief, her solo in this upbeat number stands out as one of the most memorable parts of the production.
In addition to the lovable and snarky princesses (Morgan Weed as Princess and the Pea proves herself to be especially ept at this), there is an array of fairytale characters that help bring the production to life. Stepsisters Belinda (MiMi Scardulla) and Betany (Tess Soltau) bring all the clumsy flair we’ve come to expect from Cinderella’s stepsisters and are the epitome of physical comedy in their hilarious rendition of “Work Bitch,” while the Stepmother (Diana Vaden in this performance)/Narrator version of “Toxic” commands the stage with a powerful presence.
Now, one cannot discuss fairytales without discussing Prince Charming. While he may not exactly live up to the reputation his name implies, Justin Guarini’s rendition of “Oops!...I Did It Again” certainly does. Blending a velvety voice and an impressive array of dance moves (among which includes a flawless chandelier swing), Guarini proves himself to be the character you love to hate and hate to love. When combined with the ensemble of princes and suave, upbeat choreography from director/choreography team Keone and Mari Madrid, the effect is, well, charming.
And of course, where would a princess be without a fabulous ball gown? Costume designer Loren Elstein is a fairy godmother in her own right as she creates gorgeous, jaw dropping dresses for the production’s leading ladies. While still maintaining the integrity of the classic designs we have come to know and love, she gives our princesses a modern, feminist makeover.
While this glittery, upbeat musical is sure to be a Broadway hit, it is not for young viewers. It may be marketed as fairytale characters, but mature humor and themes clearly mark this as a show for adults, regardless of how important the message of female empowerment may be for young audience members.
All in all, “Once Upon a One More Time” is great fun. It’s colorful, upbeat, and incredibly entertaining, all while delivering an important message to the tune of Spears’ greatest hits. Her recent freedom from her conservatorship makes the musical even better, as the production parallels Spears’ own struggles and fight for her version of happily ever after. Admittedly, the ending might be in need of a bit of refining before it hits Broadway, but this original musical is exactly what Broadway needs right now after a long, covid-induced hiatus. With a timeless message and a catchy, lovable score, “Once Upon a One More Time” is sure to be a hit.
The production runs for two hours and twenty minutes, including one twenty minute intermission. “Once Upon a One More Time” will run at the Shakespeare Theatre Company in Washington DC through January 9, and tickets can be purchased here.
All photo credit to Matthew Murphy.