What do you get by crossing “Six” with “& Juliet”? No, “Bad Cinderella” was last season. Today, that mash-up of two similar musicals gives you the slightly better Cinderella show, which has been tortuously titled “Once Upon a One More Time.” This new jukebox tuner, which recycles songs written and/or performed by Britney Spears, opened Thursday at the Marquis Theatre after its world premiere at the Shakespeare Theatre in Washington, D.C.
Who would have thought that female empowerment in the 21st century would need to wear so many tiaras? “Once Upon a One More Time” gives us not one rhinestone-fixated heroine but over half a dozen, ranging from Sleeping Beauty (Ashley Chiu) to Princess Pea (Morgan Whitley) to Cinderella (Briga Heelan), whose tale receives the most damage from book writer Jon Hartmere.
Long story short, all these princesses live in a fairytale factory controlled by a bossy Narrator (Adam Godley, being alarmingly British in a show awash with American accents) who has been churning out the same old stories for centuries. This assembly-line aspect of Hartmere’s book has its moments. Especially funny and touching is when the Narrator orders Hansel (Kevin Trinio Perdido) and Gretel (Selene Haro) to make their appearance at the gingerbread house, and, as this brother-and-sister team runs across the stage, Princess Pea casually muses, “Those poor children.” Otherwise, most of the jokes depend on the sweet but uneducated Snow White (Aisha Jackson) not being able to spell. Also very lame: Since an actor of color is playing Snow, when she is asked her name, the character replies, “Snow… Black!”
Conflict arises when Cinderella and Snow White (or Black) realize that they’ve been sharing the same Prince Charming (Justin Guarini). They decide to go on strike and are joined by Rapunzel (Gabrielle Beckford), Belle (Liv Battista), the Little Mermaid (Lauren Zakrin), and others. This abrupt switch to feminist activism is signaled more through costume changes than anything having to do with good writing. In the beginning, Loren Elstein’s outfits for the young female characters are styled traditionally Disney. Sometime before intermission, they turn into something that would give Patricia Field a migraine.
Beyond the truly ugly costumes, Hartmere’s book fails to give the girls much to do once they’ve gone on strike, and that includes Cinderella, who, as played by Heelan, possesses all the edge and pizzazz of a young Shirley Jones.
There’s also a big problem when a satyric Prince Charming and an evil Stepmother steal a show about young female empowerment. In the latter role, Jennifer Simard counters the mindless frenzy around her by consistently giving a droll reading to every one of her character’s pronouncements. Her delivery of “Toxic” momentarily enlivens an otherwise lackluster second act.
Guarini, through sheer and unadulterated vanity, walks away with the first act. When this philandering prince launches into the evening’s best moment, “Oops!… I Did It Again,” it is fun to see how a famous song written over two decades ago has been shoehorned into a new show. Tellingly, it is the one number in “Once Upon a One More Time” that carries its own special credit: “Original ‘Oops’ choreography by Tina Landon.”
Otherwise, the direction and less effective choreography is by Keone and Mari Madrid, who are making their Broadway debut. The husband-and-wife team are better known for their work in TV, music videos and Cirque du Soleil — and it shows.
Another Broadway debut is Brooke Dillman, who channels Jane Withers to play the Notorious O.F.G. (Original Fairy Godmother). If you think the Snow Black joke is vacuuming under the bottom of the joke barrel, Dillman gets stuck repeatedly with “Flatbush” (Brooklyn) as a laugh line. Among all the dross of Hartmere’s book, there is a flicker of real gold in Dillman’s fairy godmother: Even more retro than putting Josephine the Plumber on stage is seeing Betty Friedan’s “The Feminine Mystique” turned into a major plot point. Any character that does that can’t be part of a really “Bad Cinderella.”