Even in the world of pop-music megastars, you won’t find anyone with as much drama as Britney Spears. A former child star who became a real-life Lolita, she had a whole future mapped out, but managed to make a mess of things every step of the way. Better yet, she surrounded herself with shady, untrustworthy people: sleazy agents, drug-addicted socialites, paparazzi boyfriends, the wannabe white-boy rapper who became her baby daddy. When the poor thing decided to shave her head and with it, her girl-next-door image — just one in a spate of highly publicized meltdowns — the event aired repeatedly on tabloid TV for several days. “Hot mess” would be an understatement.
That’s the stuff that modern musicals are made of, argue Molly Bell and Daya Curley, who penned a new Britney biopic for Center REPertory Company. Becoming Britney begins at a group recovery meeting called “Promises, Promises,” advertised to the “exceptionally beautiful and moderately talented.” It turns out that each exceptionally beautiful cast member has a vice of his or her own, ranging from pills to bulimia to nymphomania. Britney (played by Bell) sits in the back with her head down, bald head hidden beneath a red hoodie. The cast is small, with six actors doing double and triple duty. Music director Greg Zema sits stage left with his Roland synthesizer, drinking coffee and looking bored.
Right away, you know it’s going to be corny. And that’s intentional, say the cast members, who at one point refer to musicals as “an inherently ridiculous art form” (or something to that effect). With that revelation, the directors give themselves permission to be as ridiculous as humanly possible, having Britney quote nursery rhymes, and building the whole show on a copulation of clichés. Bell wears a series of blond wigs to mark the different phases of Britney’s life, each of which gets its own dance number. The other characters orbit around her, singing harmonies, dancing backup, or serving as part of an entourage. The general consensus is that Britney will heal once she leaves the music-video world, and embraces musical theater as a new medium.
There’s not much that anyone can do to enhance or further dramatize the life of Britney Spears, since it really stands by itself. Bell and Curley obviously knew that. They glossed over key moments in the starlet’s biography — The Mickey Mouse Club and Star Search, for example — but didn’t adulterate any facts. The play focuses selectively on Britney’s life right around the time it reached a nadir. “Baby One More Time” had all but defined bubblegum pop for the new millennium. A staged romance with fellow pop darling Justin Timberlake had fallen apart. Brit’s subsequent marriage to K-Fed, and the two babies she bore him, had tarnished the star’s reputation. Trashy family members were moving in to peck at Britney’s fortune. Paris Hilton and Lindsay Lohan lurked right around the corner.
The directors made a rather cruel choice by starting at that point in the game, though it does give them an opportunity to present a smaller, more vulnerable Britney. Bell is, indeed, small, and she plays the starlet with a Southern-hick accent, which may or may not have been true to life. (During her 1999 interview on The Rosie O’Donnell Show, Brit was prone to say “mah” for “my” and “ah” for “I,” a habit she’d mostly kicked by the time Diane Sawyer interviewed her this year.) Sweet and callow, she shines most in the dance choreography, which requires skill in everything from Fred Astaire shuffles to B-girl pirouettes. Most of it poaches directly from the “Baby One More Time” and “Oops, I Did It Again” videos that propelled Britney to international stardom.
Those dances aside, the real star of this show is Keith Pinto, who alternates as K-Fed and as Britney’s white trash cousin, Cooter. A founding member of the hip-hop group Felonious, he’s clearly in his element playing an amateur rapper. The role requires him to pop, lock, impregnate Britney, and basically follow JT in a perfect line of succession. (Psych.) Pinto, and the dance number in which he and Britney go into labor — appropriately titled “Push It Out” — are the best things about this play.
That, and the fact that all of these dancers can do the “One More Time” choreography in platform go-go boots. Even the real Britney Spears would tip her hat.