REVIEW: “ONCE UPON A ONE MORE TIME” BRINGS BRITNEY SPEARS HITS TO BROADWAY

Once Upon a One More Time

 

Once Upon a One More TimeIs Britney Spears the new Andrew Lloyd Webber?

This summer marks the first time Broadway is without a show of Webber’s since 1979. For the last 44 years, Webber enthusiasts would typically have multiple musicals concurrently playing to choose from at any given time. 2023 began with Bad Cinderella and Phantom of the Opera playing one block away from one another. With their closings this year, Phantom’s historic 35-year run ended—as did Webber’s streak of consecutive shows.

Britney Spears fans, however, have three different productions to choose from if they want to hear the pop queen’s catalog on the Great White Way. In Moulin Rouge, “Toxic” takes on a tango twist. In & Juliet, five of Spears’ biggest hits are performed alongside a slew of other earworms from the early aughts. And in the just opened Once Upon a One More Time, all 23 songs are from Spears’ iconic repertoire.

Playing at the Marquis Theatre, Once Upon a One More Time is a hilarious, unforgettable, and deliciously absurd night at the theater. The show manages to be simultaneously deeply unserious and comedic while being surprisingly topical and empowering. Spears, who fully authorized the musical, referred to it as “funny, smart, and brilliant.”

The jukebox musical follows some of the world’s most beloved fairytale characters—Cinderella, Snow White, Little Mermaid, Sleeping Beauty, and Rapunzel to name a few—as they go on journeys of self-discovery after their “scroll club” reads Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique. As they come to realize they can create their own happily ever afters instead of sticking to the stories written for them, Spears’ songbook is cleverly weaved in for high-octane musical numbers with rock arena production value and electrifying choreography.

Once Upon a One More Time

As Snow White, Aisha Jackson dazzles with her extraordinary vocal prowess. The cast album recording of her stunning rendition of “From the Bottom of My Broken Heart” can’t come soon enough. Similarly, her heartfelt duet with Briga Heelan’s Cinderella on deep cut “Brightest Morning Star” is another standout.

Also fantastic is Justin Guarini as Prince Charming. The original American Idol runner-up shows off just what a triple threat he is with his silky singing voice, dynamic dancing, and impeccable comedic timing. As The Stepmother, the reliably terrific Jennifer Simard channels the same warbly, low monotone that made her turn in Disaster! the black horse at the 2016 Tony Awards. But don’t be fooled by what appears to be her apathy. The Stepmother cares deeply, particularly about her daughters, and the epic wail she belts out at the end of “Toxic” is worth the price of admission alone.

Once Upon a One More Time

The show includes most of the songs synonymous with Spears – “Baby One More Time,” “Lucky,” “Oops! I Did It Again,” “Womanizer,” and “Circus,” to name a few. It also features some lesser known should-have-been-hits like “Cinderella,” which is apropos to say the least. Though adding in some other tracks like “Overprotected” or “Clumsy” would have narratively fit like a glass slipper, the musical does an excellent job of interpolating Spears’ most well-known material into driving the plot forward.

During the curtain call medley of energetic anthems like “Till the World Ends” and “Gimme More,” bracelets that were handed out to all audience members at the top of the show begin to light up. As people get on their feet to sing and dance along with the talented company, the positivity radiating from the stage is nothing short of infectious. In an era when our news cycle makes true escapism increasingly difficult, there’s something very powerful about a piece of art that can make all its consumers leave with smiles on their faces.

Once Upon a One More Time

Had Once Upon a One More Time opened prior to Spears’ conservatorship ending, it would have hit very differently. After all, the show encourages audiences to take control of their own narratives and pave their own paths. Spears famously was unable to do so for 13 years, with every inch and decision of her life and career controlled by others—not unlike the characters on stage under the rule of the Narrator. That this production has come to Broadway at a time when Spears finally has the freedom to shape her own happy ending makes it a hopeful and inspirational tale of reclaiming one’s life.

“I love just that dilemma of not even being able to vocalize what you want. That’s such a big, huge step. So for that to then track with what’s been going on in [Spears’] world, it just feels almost preordained as if she herself manifested this because if you looked at the pitch document, that was the pitch,” book writer Jon Hartmere told The Hollywood Reporter.

Once Upon a One More Time

Added choreographer Keone Madrid: “[Reporters] would ask her nasty questions about her that were so off-putting, but to see her just remain calm — answer and calmly correct people — and still be kind throughout at all, I think that was just a clear compass for us of like what her spirit is in terms of what she stands for, and how do we do that inside of the making of the show with each other as humans. Then how do we try and exert that to an audience, so that they leave feeling like they can treat each other with joy and happiness and kindness and all the things that she stood for. Because it got ugly for a while, in terms of the conservatorship and everything. But we all just wanted her to be happy and live a free life, and we’re so happy that we’re able to get the confirmation that she was supporting the show post conservatorship so that we can support her fully by creating this work wholeheartedly and stand for the things that she directly stood for.”

Not only does the show highlight the importance of advocating for yourself, its sugary surface is also stuffed with social and political commentary that couldn’t be more topical today. Once Upon a One More Time is about women’s rights and the freedom to choose, the importance of literature and free access to it, and a joyous celebration of queer love. It’s the type of show that Ron DeSantis would want to ban immediately, which only underlines how needed and important it is in the country’s current climate. Yes, the musical is a spectacle built around catchy pop music—but it’s also a rallying cry.

Once Upon a One More Time


For far more than just Spears fans, Once Upon a One More Time is now playing. Get your tickets here.


PHOTOS | MATTHEW MURPHY

About ALEX KELLEHER-NAGORSKI 167 Articles
Alex has been writing for PopBytes since 2011. As the Theater Editor, he focuses on all aspects of Broadway, Off-Broadway, Regional Theater, and beyond. Alex lives in Western Massachusetts and can be found on Twitter at @AlexKNagorski.