UPDATED: A Broadway transfer was officially confirmed soon after the opening-night curtain went up. Following its downtown run, “Once” will move to the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre, beginning previews Feb. 28 for a March 18 opening.
NEW YORK – 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 town working as such a seamless unit to serve the material. It may sound like heresy to fans of the 2007 Fox Searchlight release, but this bewitching stage adaptation arguably improves on the movie, 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, the fractured love story about the power of music 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 Markéta Irglová, who wrote its gorgeous acoustic song score (including the Oscar-winning “Falling Slowly”) and play partly improvised versions of themselves in the film.
But where so many screen-to-stage adaptations blunder by slavishly replicating their sources or inflating elements of comedy, sentiment or romance to cartoonish proportions, Once makes intelligent decisions at every step. Perhaps the smartest of those was bringing on board the brilliant Irish playwright Enda Walsh to write a book distinguished by his unique brand of pithy lyricism and sharp-edged humor. The result is a show that augments its source – most notably by deepening the secondary characters — without sacrificing the intensity that is the film’s essence.
The other key forces making this such a full-bodied transformation are director John Tiffany and choreographer Steven Hoggett, who last teamed on Black Watch, the stunningly visceral play about a Scottish regiment in Iraq that became a worldwide sensation. Their collaboration here is no less thrilling. Hoggett’s expressive, gesture-based movement and Tiffany’s precision-tooled direction create an experience in which moments of haunting stillness alternate with pulsing motion, and even the scene changes pack visual poetry.
The question at this point is not if the production should transfer to Broadway but when and how. While they go uncredited in this Off Broadway premiere run at New York Theater Workshop (the birthplace of Rent), deep-pocketed commercial producers have been behind Once throughout its gestation. Plans are believed to be in place for a fast-track move in the spring. I can’t be alone in hoping the show lands in one of the smaller Broadway houses, preferably under 1,000 seats, to preserve the intimacy that gives this NYTW staging such enveloping warmth.
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 pre-show and intermission with actors in character playing rousing folk tunes. This dissolves barriers and raises the spirits even before Once begins. The rear and side walls are hung with framed mirrors, dominated by a large rectangular classic pub mirror tilted directly over the bar, which pulls the audience in even closer.
While Hansard’s screen character, identified only as Guy, was a Dublin 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 immigrant whose filter-free directness is a force to be reckoned with, is too taken by his music to watch him abandon it.
Learning that he repairs vacuum cleaners for a living, she miraculously produces a broken one and ushers him home to the shop run by his Da (David Patrick Kelly). En route, they visit hot-headed Billy (Paul Whitty), who lets the Girl play piano in his struggling music store. Snatching the Guy’s sheet music, she bullies him into singing and playing with her on “Falling Slowly,” the first of several emotionally ravishing interludes.
Out of a few awkward exchanges, a thwarted romance is hatched in music, bringing both mutual heartache and reciprocal gifts. The Guy still carries a heavy torch for his ex (Erikka Walsh). The inspiration for his tender-hearted songs, she moved to New York six months earlier, leaving their relationship unfinished. The Girl remains loyal to her estranged husband back in the Czech Republic. While the show follows the general trajectory of the movie as she drives him to make a demo recording, the motley band of musicians assembles more organically, absorbing the Girl’s extended family of fellow Czechs. Skeptics bracing for the distortion of a happy ending will be gratified by the integrity with which Walsh touches every poignant note of the film, and then some.
Comparable to what Tom Kitt achieved with Green Day’s music in the stage adaptation of American Idiot, Martin Lowe’s orchestrations build on Hansard and Irglová’s songs with both inventiveness and restraint. The intricate harmonies and layering of instrumentation are glorious. Some numbers, like “Gold,” become quieter and more introspective; others like “Say It to Me Now” and “When Your Mind’s Made Up” acquire breathtaking power, with Kazee capturing Hansard’s melancholy howl without resorting to imitation.
The entire cast doubles as musicians while etching flavorful characterizations. Purists may grumble that Kazee is too buff and pretty to be a down-at-heel Dubliner (he could be Paul Rudd’s hotter brother), but he plays the role with aching tenderness and sings the hell out it. With her lovely, cracked voice and brittle accent, the wonderful Milioti evokes a soulful Björk who’s actually from our planet. The supporting cast is full of memorable turns, notably from Kelly, Anne L. Nathan as the Girl’s feisty mother, Lucas Papaelias as an over-caffeinated death-metal drummer, Andy Taylor as the country music-loving bank manager who provides the loan to cover studio time, and Whitty as wild man Billy.
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 singular capacity to enchant and transport us.
Venue: New York Theatre Workshop, New York (Through Jan. 15)
Cast: David Abeles, Claire Candela, Will Connolly, Elizabeth A. Davis, Steve Kazee, David Patrick Kelly, Cristin Milioti, Anne L. Nathan, Lucas Papaelias, Andy Taylor, Erikka Walsh, Paul Whitty, J. Michael Zygo
Director: John Tiffany
Book: Enda Walsh, based on the motion picture written and directed by John Carney
Music and lyrics: Glen Hansard, Markéta Irglová
Set and costume designer: Bob Crowley
Lighting designer: Natasha Katz
Sound designer: Clive Goodwin
Movement: Steven Hoggett
Music supervision and orchestrations: Martin Lowe
Presented by New York Theatre Workshop