Thursday, June 22, 2023

REVIEW: Once Upon a One More Time

Review of the evening preview performance on Saturday, June 3, 2023 at the Marquis Theatre in New York City. Starring Briga Heelan, Justin Guarini, Jennifer Simard, Adam Godley, Brook Dillman, Aisha Jackson, Amy Hillner Larsen, Tess Soltau, Nathan Levy, Ryan Steele and Mila Weir. Book by Jon Hartmere. Based on the music performed and recorded by Britney Spears. Scenic design by Anna Fleischle. Costume design by Loren Elstein. Lighting design by Kenneth Posner. Sound design by Andrew Keister. Projection design by Sven Ortel. Creative consultant David Leveaux. Direction and choreography by Keone Madrid and Mari Madrid. 2 hours, 30 minutes, including one intermission.

Grade: F

Well, I'm sad to report that the 2023-2024 Broadway musical season is off to a ...weak start. Last season's similarly themed Bad Cinderella looks like a masterpiece compared to the loud, ugly mess that is Once Upon a One More Time. I can't remember the last time I have felt such empathetic embarrassment for a cast. And there is another change-the-narrative/female-empowerment-with-a-quill-pen-and-a-jukebox-score a few blocks over from the Marquis that is vastly superior in every way. They even share a few songs, each done better by Anne, Juliet and company.


The only two (and I do mean onlythings that save this from being a complete failure are the invigorating presence of Justin Guarini as Prince Charming and Aisha Jackson as Snow White, who dominate the stage when they're on, and create a vacuum when they're off. A triple-threat of singing, comedic timing, and, surprise, dancing, Guarini is, as the kids say, living his best life up there. He truly understands the assignment: use pompous arrogance and vapid thoughts to be, well, charming. Similarly, the sassy delivery of Jackson as she morphs from silly, wide-eyed princess to empowered queen is a delight, and when she sings... wow! She shakes the rafters and wakes the bored among us right up.

Briga Heelan has the unenviable position of playing Cinderella. There have been way too many Cindys lately, and she suffers in comparison. Mostly, it's the cringey material she has to work with. With its forced plot points, forced laughs and annoying vapidity she is, I think, a stand-in for Ms. Spears. This may account for her on-the-verge-of-dumb-blonde nasal tone and line readings. She's also the only person in the whole cast who sings like Britney, only without the aid of lip-syncing to prerecorded tracks and digital fixes. I mean, she's literally the only one like this, so being a stand-in must be why. Right? (I'm grasping at straws here.) The rest of the featured princesses are okay, I guess, but after a while, they seem to blend into one royal blob. (I don't think the woman next to me ever understood who the princess from Princess and the Pea was, and only when the actress referred to herself as Rapunzel, did she get that one. I quote, "That's who that is!? Bitch needs more hair!")

Another set of characters that have appeared in too many similarly themed shows are the wicked/evil/misunderstood Stepmother and Step-sisters. This go round, they are, respectively, played by Jennifer Simard, Amy Hillner Larsen and Tess Soltau. The sisters, here called Belinda and Betany, are a screechy, unfunny duo - I gritted my teeth every time they entered. (The audience did love it when the one sister screamed, "It's Betany, bitch!") Even the always wonderful Simard is not good here. Sure she gets big laughs and gets to sing an...interesting... version of "Toxic," all while swaggering around the huge stage sounding like a young All About Eve era Bette Davis. But I think the rapturous online preview reviews she's gotten have to do with her past accomplishments, and even more to do with the fact that she's such a pro that even the combination of bad material and her "couldn't care less" demeanor makes it seem like it's another winning performance. I've always been baffled when I hear people say, "So and so looks bored the whole time." Not any more. I've seen it for myself here.

The inevitable narrator character (Adam Godley) is more of an annoyance than sinister ringmaster, and the other inevitable character - Fairy Godmother - (Brook Dillman) is just as ridiculous. OFG as they call her, dressed like a 50's housewife, spews platitudes and woman power slogans like she's reading a grocery list; Dillman reminds me of the Agatha character in WandaVision in her campy delivery, but decidedly less effectively. Where is Jackie Hoffman when you need her?

Aside from the fact that a revival of the greatest fractured fairy tale musical ever was on Broadway recently, and two other, vastly superior versions trod the boards last season, book writer Jon Hartmere, Jr. had a good idea here. He could have made something really interesting. But the plot is repetitive - how many princess club meetings must we sit through where the same material is covered every time? And there are potentially interesting sub-plots that just stop - what about that damned magic quill ominously glowing in a bubble over the stage? The best relationship in the whole thing is between a gay dwarf and a gay prince, which is saying something given how tired that trope is. Worst of all, the book never matches the songs used beyond the first few lines of each blending into the dialogue - sloppy punchlines where the rest of the song barely has anything to do with the characters or plot. Each song is, however, an excuse to dance.

Renowned in the music video world and for the occasional theatrical dance piece, Keone and Mari Madrid certainly put their dancers through their paces. And it is when the dancers dance that the show really picks up. The first few are quite good, until you realize that they are painfully repetitive (like the book). The formations - circles into a line that breaks into a "v" - over and over offer only diminishing returns. It says something about the choreography when a segment of "Oops, I Did It Again" is done to the original video dance routine and the audience screams in adoration. (At least that choreographer is credited in the Playbill.) Two-time Tony nominee Jennifer Weber has nothing to worry about. The Madrids are also responsible for the direction, which is pretty basic staging coupled with a woefully apparent lack of understanding about theme and book tightening. More than once, I thought to myself that the actors are directing themselves to see what sticks.

Don't let the pictures or the B-roll clip fool you, design-wise, this is a wholly unattractive production with the best thing being the garish to excess lighting by Kenneth Posner, who seems to get that he has the lion's share of work to do, with a mostly bare metallic box as his canvas. The set, what there is of it, by Anna Fleischle, is neither fairy tale-like nor nightmarish enough, and that box she put it in is... Anyway, Loren Elstein's costumes show some promise at first, when they pay tribute to their Disney/Grimm counterparts, but fall apart in act two when the Princess 2.0 cavalcade begins - each coming out looking like they got hastily wrapped up in yards of sequinned material from the discontinued bin at Walmart. And why do these things always make female empowerment mean looking like hookers? I can't believe that the same guy (Sven Ortel) who did the stunning projections for Parade was responsible for the ugliness seen here. Andrew Keister's sound had one volume - loud.

In a one-quarter or less filled mezzanine on a Saturday night, the people that did come seemed to have a good time. I'm glad for them, really. They came for Britney and they got Britney. Loud and dance-y. But I know at least one group of people who were disappointed. The ladies next to me sang loud and proud with each song, that is, until a lyric changed. Then they stopped and picked up again when they knew the lyrics. "Why do they keep messing up the words?" They were less enthusiastic as the show wore on. Maybe it didn't matter to them that the songs had so little to do with the plot.

They say in the show that well-behaved princesses rarely make history. Neither do rotten musicals. If pop hits and girl power re-write is what you need, head over to the Sondheim and grab tickets for & Juliet.  

📸: M. Murphy 

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