Have faith, dear readers! The jukebox musical has gotten a shot in the arm rendering it healthy and more hopeful than ever. This past season has given us & Juliet (based on Shakespeare, featuring the songs of Max Martin) and Bad Cinderella (based on “Cinderella,” featuring the noodling of Andrew Lloyd Webber), both of which proved less than artful and clumsy in their own well-intentioned way. But here comes Once Upon a One More Time, which fuses several fairy tales together in a knowing and rousing way. Too upfront about it woke messages to be subversive but too smart in assigning its entwined tales to the songs of a certain iconic pop star, One More Time casts Britney Spears’ catalog in a whole new light, and makes it shine.
The musical’s premise is clever enough. In Jon Hartmere’s book, Cinderella (Briga Heelan) and a group of other public-domain princesses work as professional reenactors of bedtime fairy tales. They have what amounts to Old Hollywood studio contracts, in that they have little say over their material, are constantly told they should be grateful for their happy endings, and are bossed around by a wispy mean man (Adam Godley’s Narrator) who talks down to them. At the outset, Cinderella feels a vague dissatisfaction with her life that she can’t quite articulate, whereupon the “notorious” Original Fairy Godmother (Brooke Dillman) appears and presents her with a copy of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique. Cinderella’s already a reader, and she leads her fellow princesses in a “scroll club” gathering, but the concepts of both bound pages and “the problem that has no name” are thrilling to her, so Friedan’s writing kicks off a consciousness-raising revolution in fairy-tale land. Soon, Cinderella is starting to insist on changes to her storyline, pissing off the Narrator, her prince (From Justin to Kelly’s Justin Guarini), and her evil stepmother (the eternally underutilized Jennifer Simard).
Amid all the bright lights, loud sound and frenetic staging—at one point, Guarini swings from a chandelier—the musical’s most powerful weapon is its least effortful one: musical-comedy genius Jennifer Simard’s thoroughly original spin on Cinderella’s devious stepmother. “Work Bitch” works out just fine when Cinderella’s wicked stepsisters (Ryann Redmond and Tess Soltau) boss her around with rewritten lyrics: “You want a posh carriage? / You want a hot marriage? / You wanna rock rich? / You better work bitch.” “Toxic” is a hypnotic affair.
Armed with a toothy grin and a self-satisfied manner, Guarini is a divinely repulsive Prince Charming, literally swinging from the chandeliers in celebration of his fairytale harem. He’s in excellent voice, and he’s clearly having so much fun up there, bringing the audience along for the ride. It’s uncomfortable to admit that in a story about the triumph of feminism, the male lead delivers the most memorable performance.
Hartmere’s premise shows that these greatest-hit musicals from the modern pop music canon can show signs of intelligent life, with the right sense of intentionality and a perfect cast. One More Time gives us the happy ending that so far proved eternally elusive.