Once Upon a One More Time, Shakespeare Theatre Company

 Britney Spears is having a Moment in the zeitgeist right now. A complex Moment, but isn't that always the case with Moments? Britney has had her share of Moments in the spotlight since she rose to fame and infamy, and the work of the last five years or so for many of my generation (elder Millennials, represent) has been recognizing the ways in which our understanding of those Moments was flawed from the outset. We're not very good as a society in remembering that Moments--and people--are always complex, and that there's always another side to the story that we might not be seeing. 

Photo of the cast of Once Upon a One More Time by Matthew Murphy


It's hard not to think about Spears and her own story with the long-awaited arrival of Once Upon a One More Time, currently playing at the Shakespeare Theatre Company in Washington, DC. Jon Hartmere's book uses the songs made famous by Spears to tell a story of fairy tale heroines suddenly taking control of their own story, and it's easy to wonder just how much resonance there is between a star locked under a conservatorship and the need to #freeCinderella from the control of her wicked stepmother.

As much as the show may invite the comparison, it certainly doesn't seem to want you to dwell on it. Instead, the production from Keone and Mari Madrid wants the focus to be on the frothy, stylish production itself, and the thrill in the audience each time a new number is introduced.  Loren Elstein's costumes are an absolute delight, evocative of familiar depictions of each character but playing with those silhouettes and color palettes with humor and creativity (a personal favorite of mine was Lauren Zakrin's Little Mermaid costume, which somehow perfectly suggested a mermaid's tale without anything remotely approaching realism). The ensemble does great work, with standout work from Briga Heelan as Cinderella, Aisha Jackson as Snow White, and Justin Guarini having far too much fun as Prince Charming.

Photo of Justin Guarini and Briga Heelan in Once Upon a One More Time by Matthew Murphy


Now, the funny thing is, I can count the number of Britney songs I actually know on one hand. Jukebox musicals have never been my thing! And the 11th hour lore drop in this show made me giggle almost uncontrollably... but that's the thing. None of those things actually mattered all that much, and those giggles at the sudden introduction of plot hoops to jump through were from delight, not scorn. Once Upon a One More Time wants to be a fun night at the theatre, and hits especially well at this point in the pandemic. It's hard to ask it to be more than it aspires to, although gosh, it would be nice if the be-all and end-all of its version of feminism didn't start and end with The Feminine Mystique. A fairy tale princess might indeed have much in common with dissatisfied middle class housewives of the mid-twentieth century but oy, with the recent passing of bell hooks so strongly in my mind, it smarted a little to see these heroines read one white lady's perspective and think they have the full picture. Nevertheless, OUAOMT is exactly what it wants to be, giving audiences a wink and a good time and a promise that for a few hours, they can ride on a wave of girl power and catchy tunes. These days, that's exactly what a lot of us want and need, and we're lucky to have a chance to enjoy it here in DC for as long as it can run.


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