You don’t have to wait for the first AI musical. It’s here. Well, the artificial part, anyway.
The ingredients of ‘Once Upon a One More Time’ — various fairy tales, a bunch of Britney Spears songs, a how-to-strut-and-tut manual — may very well have been fed into a computer and reformulated by Chatbot GPT. For all I know, the musical might unfold in a different, random sequence of songs, words and dance every night at the Marquis Theatre, where it had its official Broadway opening last week.
Well, actually, having seen an earlier incarnation of this bombastic, mechanical entertainment in 2021 at DC’s Shakespeare Theatre Company, I know that it plays out as it did before. Little has been done to address its deficiencies. The central flaw is a slipshod story that just doesn’t track — I know, I know, it’s all supposed to be a sugary coconut-cream cupcake of a show, not meant to awaken serious palates. Still, Jon Hartmere’s book is such a hodgepodge of disjointed ideas that software intervention might actually have helped.
The premise is that all of a child’s favourite fairy-tale princesses — from folklore and Disney alike — live out their days in a metaphysical green room, waiting to be summoned to work by a wizardly narrator, played by Adam Godley (of the Tony-winning ‘The Lehman Trilogy’, among other great things. Oh, why, Adam?). Their labours commence (how? where?) whenever a real kid reads their story. Everything is copacetic until the day Cinderella (the mega-appealing Briga Heelan) is gifted by her fairy godmother (Brooke Dillman, channelling Josephine the Plumber from the old Comet commercials) a copy of Betty Friedan’s ‘The Feminine Mystique’.
Freeing the women — Cinderella, Snow White (Aisha Jackson), Rapunzel (Gabrielle Beckford), Sleeping Beauty (Ashley Chiu), the Little Mermaid (Lauren Zakrin) among them — from their male-identification fixation leads us in and out of a couple dozen Spears numbers. Such well-known Britney songs as ‘Toxic’, ‘ ... Baby One More Time’ and ‘Oops! ... I Did It Again’ rotate in with several lesser-known titles by Spears, Max Martin and many others.
Linking a millennial superstar to proto-feminist versions of storybook characters is potentially a lucrative idea for Broadway, if not exactly an original one (e.g. the recent Andrew Lloyd Webber disaster ‘Bad Cinderella’, which did a quick Times Square disappearing act). ‘Once Upon a One More Time’ also seems revved up — with beat-hitting dances by director-choreographers Keone and Mari Madrid — to go toe-to-toe with a much savvier jukebox musical, ‘& Juliet’. That show, a pop riff on ‘Romeo and Juliet’, also features Max Martin songs, several from Spears’s repertory.
Some cast members have been switched out for Broadway: Among the newcomers are Godley and the indispensable Jennifer Simard, who assumes the role of Cinderella’s wicked Stepmother. Her portrayal of a glammed-up troublemaker, a snooty fashion plate out of the Miranda Priestly mold, is fun, because Simard in anything is fun.
Heelan reprises her role, as do Jackson and several of the young actresses playing famous fairy-tale denizens. They’re all to satisfactory degrees cheery and silly and polished, and wear Loren Elstein’s witty candy- and pastel-coloured frocks as if they’re heading to the prom on Magic Mountain.
Justin Guarini, the production’s magnetic marquee name (by dint of Season 1 of ‘American Idol’) is back, too, as a vigorous, mischievous Prince Charming. He gives a pleasingly preening, self-parodying account of male vanity. Which, in the moral universe of ‘Once Upon a One More Time’, is punishable by — well, let’s just say that for all his duplicity, this prince gets off pretty much scot-free. (Only a reticent couple are exempted from abrasive romantic entanglement.)
The Madrids attempt to express the declarations of freedom and defiance in the Spears songbook through their angular movement, but there’s no particular development of choreographic style over the show’s 2 1/2 hours. The exhilaration wears off as the moves repeat again and again. Too much tutting, and a show set in a fantasyland starts to look like a recycled concert routine.