Britney's Name in Lights

What if Britney Spears, the most poignant example of disintegrated teenstardom in recent history, was turned into the Ariel or Elphaba of her own musical? And in pairing the fallen Britney with the strategically building chord structures and self-examining lyrics that characterize the modern musical, what would we discover about the art form itself?

Molly Bell's and Daya Curley's California import, a meta-musical entitled Becoming Britney, aims to explore both of these questions. The time frame is just short of 90 minutes, and the pace is frantic. Becoming Britney both plots out the star's much-documented life and offers satirical observations about the nature of musical theater itself. Many of the lyrical choices are clever, and the six-member cast demonstrates polished talent, but the overtly ambitious paradigm of 'Becoming Britney' ultimately weakens the end product.

The show opens shortly after the starlet's head-shaving incident that has placed her in the custody of a celebrity rehab center. She is soon asked to recount her story in song, as the clinic's other inhabitants have already done with gleefully ringing harmonies, and the audience is made aware that these characters are, very consciously, inside a musical.

Mocking Britney Spears through song may not initially seem like a challenge--after all, a writer isn't likely to run out of material--but the pervasive sense of heartbreak associated with each of her antics also provides a moral conundrum. More than just laugh at Britney's bizarre childrearing methods and schizophrenic escapades around Los Angeles, we want, almost desperately, to understand what drives her. It's this expectation that also inevitably raises the stakes for Becoming Britney.

As the title character, Molly Bell is convincing. While her Britney offers too many wide-eyed stares and not enough of the starlet's now-famous fits of rage, Bell has undoubtedly studied her subject carefully. She slurps Red Bulls, picks at her teeth, chews gum and, during the show's lip-synched numbers, nails Britney's characteristic finger-wagging and seductive smirk. In these pre-recorded pop tracks, her moans and nasally delivered choruses sound exactly like the real Britney. 'Push it Out,' a number that opens with K-Fed (Keith Pinto) dancing to a hospital heart monitor and includes plenty of panting and grinding by twice-pregnant Britney, is bluntly hilarious--and surprisingly catchy. When Bell sings live, her self-assured and versatile voice is a joy to listen to.

Although many of the musical numbers offer smart comedy ("I need an "I Want"- Song to describe internal strife," sings Bell in a showstopper that seems to mock every self-discovery song from The Sound of Music to Wicked), they seem to be in frequent discord with the show's spoken scenes. This Britney is simplistic and chronically void of self-awareness, but when she breaks into song, her lyrics and vocabulary suddenly turn snarky. This conflict may very well have been intentional, but still leaves us in the dark on who really is behind the wig.

Becoming Britney is part of the 2008 New York International Fringe Festival.

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