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NEW YORK – “For an island this tiny to make all these writers and poets and musicians! This is insane,” says the unnamed female protagonist of Once. “And yet on this little rock in the middle of the ocean you make men and women who for centuries can speak and sing of what it is to be a person.” That awed appreciation of Ireland’s fertile cultural output – and the skill of its artists at transmuting real human experience into soaring poetry – seems not the least bit hyperbolic in the context of this sustained swoon of a musical, nurtured out of John Carney’s 2007 microbudget indie feature.
The best thing to happen to Broadway in the past decade has been the increasingly adventurous welcome extended to idiosyncratic musicals hatched off-Broadway, providing greater exposure for such shows as Avenue Q, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, Grey Gardens, Passing Strange, Spring Awakening and Fela! Not all have found commercial success to match their critical support, but every time producers take the risk of transferring unconventional material, it expands the scope – and possibly, the audience – of musical theater. Once is a beguiling addition to that list.
The show premiered in December in a sold-out, extended run at New York Theater Workshop. Advance word out of previews was so ecstatic and the producers’ confidence in the show so high that a Broadway transfer was announced on opening night, even before reviews had broken. Given that the earlier incarnation was covered in detail in The Hollywood Reporter and has moved uptown virtually intact, this is not a review so much as a reiteration of the musical’s rewards.
Adapted with humor and resourcefulness by Irish playwright Enda Walsh, who has done especially satisfying work expanding the secondary characters, the story is a gossamer sliver of thwarted romance. A despondent Dublin busker and songwriter identified only as Guy (Steve Kazee) and a Czech immigrant billed as Girl (Cristin Milioti) meet cute by way of a broken vacuum cleaner and a piano. Both are hindered by unfinished relationships even as music draws them closer while they gather the elements to make a demo recording. That connection gives the show its lifeblood. As much as the complicated byroads of love and longing, Once is about making music, communicating through song. And what jewels those songs are.
Written by Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova, who played versions of themselves in the Fox Searchlight movie, the numbers include the Oscar-winning “Falling Slowly,” as well as such heartrending ballads as “Leave,” “If You Want Me,” “Say It to Me Now,” “Gold” and “When You’re Mind’s Made Up,” all of which will be familiar to the duo’s fans. (Hansard and Irglova recorded as The Swell Season, which also was the title of a documentary chronicling their professional and personal relationship.)
The haunting beauty of the songs in performance is due to an exceptional cast of actor-musicians, and to the marriage of elegant simplicity and striking physicality in director John Tiffany and choreographer Steven Hoggett’s staging. But a large share of the credit goes to music supervisor Martin Lowe, whose sublime orchestrations and vocal harmonies elevate the songs to an exalted emotional plane. Numbers frequently begin in quiet acoustic mode, gathering force as additional voices and instruments are folded in. Sound designer Clive Goodwin ensures that every element of the complex musical mosaics is crystal clear. The lovely a cappella version of “Gold” alone is worth the price of admission.
Starting with the rousing preshow jam session on designer Bob Crowley’s inviting pub set (where the audience can buy drinks and mingle with the cast), the creative team reaches beyond the folk-rock core to incorporate traditional Irish and Central European tunes, Celtic country and even death metal in an amusing side note. Lowe’s enhanced riffs on key songs also provide the backing for Tiffany and Hoggett’s balletic scene changes.
Perhaps inevitably, the show sacrifices a little of its intimacy in the move from a 200-seat theater to a Broadway house with a capacity nudging 1,100. And Milioti pushes the quirks of her bluntly frank character (“I am always serious. I am Czech.”), adding to the occasional tendency of Walsh’s book to veer toward the twee.
But those minor quibbles hardly matter when there’s such tenderness in the performances and such skill in the musicianship. All 12 adult cast members play one or more instruments while etching distinctive characters. In addition to Kazee and Milioti’s enchanting central couple, in my off-Broadway review I singled out David Patrick Kelly, Anne L. Nathan, Lucas Papaelias, Andy Taylor and Paul Whitty, all of whom have nestled deeper into their roles. But one significant earlier oversight was Elizabeth A. Davis. Not only is she a kickass violinist, she brings a sexy spark and an invigorating shot of danger to Reza, another Czech transplant.
Once is a small-scale but warmly affecting show, crafted with profound respect for the power of music. For anyone who feels that Broadway has become the domain of bloated spectacles and cynically overworked brands, this will be a refreshing artisanal tonic.
Venue: Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre, New York (runs indefinitely)
Cast: Steve Kazee, Cristin Milioti, David Abeles, Will Connolly, Elizabeth A. Davis, David Patrick Kelly, Anne L. Nathan, Lucas Papaelias, Ripley Sobo, Andy Taylor, Mckayla Twiggs, 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, Marketa Irglova
Set and costume designer: Bob Crowley
Lighting designer: Natasha Katz
Sound designer: Clive Goodwin
Movement: Steven Hoggett
Music supervisor and orchestrations: Martin Lowe
Executive producer: Robert Cole
Presented by Barbara Broccoli, John N. Hart Jr., Patrick Milling Smith, Frederick Zollo, Brian Carmody, Michael G. Wilson, Orin Wolf, The Shubert Organization, Robert Cole, in association with New York Theatre Workshop
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