Once Upon A One More Time

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Photo: Matthew Murphy

Cititour.com Review
The illegitimate love child of “Bad Cinderella” and “&Juliet” – with a little bit of the theatrical sperm of “Into the Woods” thrown in for fertilization – the ultra-splashy musical “Once Upon a One More Time,” now at the Marquis Theatre, is the latest Broadway fable screaming at young women (or maybe all women) about their need for self-empowerment.

And I do mean “screaming” literally – as well as such spiritual cousins as “self-reliance” – are hurled at the audience throughout Jon Hartmere’s well-meaning, overcomplicated, and occasionally nonsensical script (which is full of some wit and lots of jokes cheaper than the pool floaties at WalMart.)

Not to mention, it’s the message of many of the lyrics from the show’s two dozen songs, all taken from the catalogue of “pop princess” Britney Spears, who has literally become the world’s poster child for “self-reliance” after being forced years ago into a conservatorship run by her father.

Wait, I didn’t mean to confuse you; this is not a bio-musical about Spears. Her name isn’t even mentioned. And truth be told, a number of the songs – no matter how energetically performed by a very talented cast executing directors’ Keone and Mari Madrid’s highly athletic choreography – fit the circumstances no better than that famed glass slipper did on the feet of Cinderella’s stepsisters. On the other hand, hearing those two ladies – now played by Amy Hillner Larsen and Tess Soltai – sing “Work Bitch” is almost worth the price of admission.

If you haven’t figured it out, what we have here is yet another “Cinderella story.” This time, Cin (played by Broadway newcomer Briga Heela, giving off the vibes of a Miss America contestant) – as well as her friends, Snow White (the very funny, big-voiced Aisha Jackson), Rapunzel (a sassy Gabrielle Beckford), Sleeping Beauty (a bland Ashley Chiu), The Little Mermaid (Lauren Zarkin, making the most of being “voiceless”) and Princess Pea (the hilarious Morgan Whitley, stealing scene after scene) – are all controlled by the ominous Narrator (former Tony nominee Adam Godley, doing what he can with an underwritten role).

Claiming that it’s important to all the young readers of fairy tales (represented by a little girl, played by Isabella Yi at my performance), the Narrator insists that each story be told in the exact same way time after time. That’s all well and good until Cinderella starts to question the whole idea of “Happy Ever After,” urging her fellow heroines to rethink their roles as well.

Moreover, her dissatisfaction only grows stronger once she discovers Prince Charming (a truly sensational Justin Guarini) is actually every woman’s prince! (It’s all a bit weird, since there are a bunch of princes dancing around, including one played by the handsome Ryan Steele, who turns out to be gay and finds happiness with Snow White’s eighth dwarf, Clumsy, played by the adorable Nathan Levy.) In any case, Charming is sorry, not sorry, as he expresses in a superb version of Spears’ mega-hit “Oops, I Did it Again”, making us want to root against him. We really can’t, though; Guarini is truly now an “American Idol.”

As if Charming’s infidelity wasn’t enough to turn Cinderella’s head – cue “From the Bottom of My Broken Heart” -- she gets a visit from the supposedly dead “OFG” (Original Fairy Godmother). Forget Glinda or Marie, she’s a wisecracking but kind woman now living in Flatbush, played by the priceless Brooke Dillman, who presents Cin with her first real book: Betty Freidan’s “The Feminine Mystique.” (You were expecting subtlety?)

After reading some of this legendary tome. Cin is determined to escape her existence once and for all -- and runs off with her pals into the woods. (Yep, they did it again!) However, much like in Sondheim, Cinderella has to deal with a bossy, opinionated “witch” – though this time, it’s her “evil” stepmother, who would like nothing more than to see Cinderella replaced with one of her daughters, who are now the only young women left in the kingdom.

Played with a delicious sense of a camp by the peerless Jennifer Simard, the character – despite her bad intentions – becomes an audience favorite, especially after she belts out a fierce, rafter-raising version of “Toxic” while wearing a MOB dress that seems to have been rescued from a Loehmann’s warehouse. (Overall, the costumes by Loren Elstein are colorful and efficient; the set by Anna Fleischle is sometimes spare and often kitschy and enlivened by Sven Ortel’s projections.)

However, the consequences of Stepmother’s actions aren’t what she – or we – expected, and a second act that has already crossed over to the dark side gets even darker. Thankfully, “Once Upon a One More Time” turns out to be its own sort of fairy tale, complete with the requisite happy ending – and a big finale in which the bracelets you’ve been given two and half hours ago up flash and light up. Talk about a metaphor!

By Brian Scott Lipton

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Open/Close Dates
Opening 6/22/2023
Closing 9/3/2023

Theatre Info
Marquis Theatre
1535 Broadway
New York, NY 10036