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There’s some special theater magic happening in Once. From writers and director through design team and an extraordinary ensemble of actor-musicians, it’s hard to think of another company in New York working so seamlessly to serve the material. It may sound like heresy to fans of the 2007 Fox Searchlight release of the same name, but this bewitching stage adaptation arguably improves on the movie — in which two down-and-out musicians meet on the street and strike up a musical collaboration and a fractured romance — expanding its emotional breadth and elevating it stylistically while remaining true to the original’s raw fragility.
That comparison intends no disrespect to writer-director John Carney’s delicate Irish independent feature. Shot in 17 days on a meager $160,000, it segued from Sundance discovery to sleeper hit, grossing $9.5 million domestically. Nor is it meant as a slight to the affecting performances of Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova, the musicians who wrote its gorgeous score (including the Oscar-winning “Falling Slowly”) and play partly improvised versions of themselves in the film.
Screen-to-stage adaptations can be lumbering carbon copies, but Once makes intelligent decisions at every step. Perhaps the smartest was bringing on board the brilliant Irish playwright Enda Walsh. The result is a show that departs in significant ways from its source — most notably by deepening the secondary characters — but without sacrificing the intensity that is the film’s essence.
Director John Tiffany and choreographer Steven Hoggett last teamed on Black Watch, the stunningly visceral play about a Scottish regiment in Iraq that became a worldwide sensation. Their new collaboration is no less full-bodied. The question at this point is not if the production should transfer to Broadway but when.
Designer Bob Crowley has built an Irish pub onstage, with a scuffed red-and-white tile floor and a weathered wooden bar at which theatergoers buy booze and mingle during the preshow with actors in character performing rousing folk tunes. This dissolves barriers and raises the spirits even before Once begins.
While Hansard’s screen character, identified only as Guy, was a busker still hoping to break into the music industry, his similarly no-name stage counterpart (Steve Kazee) has given up. He plays a final song (“Leave”) and puts down his guitar in bitter defeat. But the Girl (Cristin Milioti), a Czech pianist whose filter-free directness is a force to be reckoned with, is too taken by his music to watch him abandon it. Snatching his sheet music, she bullies him into singing and playing with her on “Falling Slowly,” the first of several emotionally ravishing interludes.
Martin Lowe’s orchestrations build on Hansard and Irglova’s songs with inventiveness and restraint, and the harmonies and layering of instrumentation are glorious. Purists may grumble that Kazee is too buff and pretty, but he plays the role with aching tenderness and sings the hell out of it. With her lovely, cracked voice and brittle accent, the wonderful Milioti evokes a soulful Bjork (though one from Earth).
In one of the show’s most exquisite moments, Crowley and lighting designer Natasha Katz transform the stage, as if by waving a wand, into a seaside cliff top above sparkling waters. It’s one of many times in Once when we are reminded of theater’s capacity to enchant and transport us.
Venue New York Theatre Workshop, New York (runs through Jan. 15)
Cast Claire Candela, Will Connolly, Elizabeth A. Davis, Steve Kazee, Cristin Milioti
Director John Tiffany
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