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Theatre in Review: Once Upon a One More Time (Marquis Theatre)

Justin Guarini. Photo: Matthew Murphy

I'm afraid that, this time, Cinderella has stayed too late at the ball. That's my takeaway from this strenuously gyrating romp through fairytale land, which applies a not terribly fresh feminist twist -- and a batch of Britney Spears standards -- to a gaggle of storybook characters, most of whom already have musicals of their own, if not a Disney picture or two. Timing counts for a lot in the theatre, and despite a talented company dedicated to ramming home their production numbers, Once Upon a One More Time often feels sadly passé. It suffers from princess fatigue.

In Josh Hartmere's book, Cinderella and her friends -- who include Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, and the Little Mermaid, among others -- occupy a kind of alternate universe where they are put through their paces anytime someone reads their tales to a child. It's like a theme park where the cast members are lifers, doomed to forever re-enact the stories that made them famous. Not entirely unlike a prison, it is presided over by the Narrator, an officious floorwalker type whose job is to make sure everybody sticks to their scripts.

They're a largely empty-headed bunch, happy with their lot, except for Cinderella, who has vague longings she can't name. Then the original Fairy Godmother -- yes, she is known as the Notorious OFG -- shows up, proffering a copy of The Feminist Mystique. Cinderella practically inhales Betty Friedan's incendiary thoughts, eagerly sharing them with her fellow princesses. This, combined with a certain revelation about the quality of their prince cohort, provokes rebellion among their gowned and tiara-ed ranks. Trying to suppress these angry ingenues, the Narrator threatens them all with banishment to someplace called Story's End -- apparently, the fairy tale equivalent of Staten Island, where their lives will be devoid of glamour and magic.

Hartmere's jokes are mild enough to be told at bedtime with a warm glass of milk. "Listen, I've been doing this a long time," snaps the Narrator. "And believe me, if I change so much as an intonation, the children go full Rumpelstiltskin." A character is introduced as "Prince Erudite." A beat. "The Celibate." One of Cinderella's stepsisters is misidentified as Belinda, which allows her to grumble, "It's Betany, bitch." There's a funny bit when Rapunzel, who is Black, loses it when someone tries to touch her hair, along with a zesty throwaway gag about Hansel and Gretel. But, at the performance I attended, one of the bigger laughs was unintentional, sending a nervous titter through the audience: A discouraged Cinderella laments being thwarted from escaping to America, "where we could make our lives better." Apparently, she hasn't picked up the Times lately.

Had it been the first of its kind, Once Upon a One More Time might have found an audience, if only for its novelty value. But, these days, we're up to our necks in fractured fairy tales. Last summer, we had a revival of Into the Woods, that magisterial revisionist portrait of classic childhood characters, not least of whom is a distinctly disenchanted Cinderella. Only a few months ago, we had Bad Cinderella, featuring a feisty, tough-talking title figure hell-bent on self-realization and a Prince Charming given to eyeing the chorus boys. For the more literate, there's the currently running & Juliet, in which Shakespeare's heroine flees Romeo's tomb and hotfoots it to Paris in search of independence. And let us not forget the ladies of Six, who, frustrated by the demands of Tudor queendom, band together to stand up for their rights. The show's other main selling point, the tune stack of Britney hits, is heard at a disadvantage; even earworms like "...Baby One More Time," "Work Bitch," and "Toxic" lose their sparkle when divorced from Spears' singular performance style. The repetitive, robotic moves of Keone and Mari Madrid's choreography do little to make the numbers stand out.

As Cinderella, Briga Heelan has an amusingly diffident manner reminiscent of the young Julie Hagerty, which makes for an especially effective contrast when she unleashes her aggressive alto belt. Still, the character is so drab, her gradual enlightenment so obvious and preordained, that the actress struggles to make an impression. By contrast, Justin Guarini puts his triple threat skills to work as the slick, vacuous, and untrustworthy Prince Charming, even swinging from a chandelier to sell one of his numbers. Jennifer Simard, a delightfully ruthless comic performer, is reliably hilarious as Cinderella's Stepmother, a deadpan sophisticate with exceptionally sharp elbows. ("What are you doing here?" she asks Cinderella, who has made an early entrance. "You don't ruin all my hopes and dreams for another ten minutes.") Brooke Dillman makes the OFG into a sensible, Midwestern, Mary Wickes-style presence. Nathan Levy and the gifted dancer Ryan Steele make a cute pair in the inevitable gay subplot. Ah, the life of an actor: One season, you're scoring a triumph in The Lehman Trilogy; a year or two later, you're the camp villain in a jukebox musical. Whatever the circumstances, Adam Godley is a pro; here, he makes the Narrator a monster anyone can love.

If the direction by the Madrids (David Leveaux is prominently listed as creative consultant) suffers from consistent low energy, their design team conjures up a rapidly changing environment packed with kicky surprises. Anna Fleischle's box set comes with such ornaments as trees with color-changing leaves, an elegantly minimalist cottage, and an impressive runway; keep an eye on the globe, containing a quill pen, that hovers over the action. The set is also engineered to reveal Sven Ortel's fanciful projections of enchanted forests and castle interiors. Kenneth Posner's lighting is restrained when called for yet ready to deliver pop-concert pizzazz -- beam chases in a variety of ultra-saturated colors -- at a moment's notice. Andrew Keister's sound design is super-sized -- check out those giant line arrays in the left and right proscenium -- yet remarkably clear. Less impressive are Loren Elstein's costumes, which struggle to strike a balance between classic fairy-tale looks and contemporary styles, although the princesses look good throughout.

Overall, Once Upon a One More Time leaves an impression of an enormous amount of expertise expended on a stale, utterly played-out concept. New ideas are desperately needed; we're running out of heroines to liberate. Watching the show, I wondered what the great Betty Friedan - who in her lifetime probably never saw her name linked with Spears' -- would have made of this unsophisticated exercise. Then it came to me: She would have bought tickets to Parade instead. --David Barbour

(11 July 2023)

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