I’ll admit it upfront: I hated the movie Once. The 2006 film’s dreary, bland cinematography and boorish actors and paper thin plot and muddled layer upon layer of Irish folk tunes seemed like a demo for an actual cinematic experience. Since most people I know enjoyed the film, I can only add that fans will probably be thrilled with how smartly conceived the Broadway musical is. As for non-fans? Damn, I was impressed!
Once, the Broadway musical, is that rare case of a popular movie turned into a smarter show, and that even rarer case of a smart, poignant, clever musical that does something almost archaic by the New Great White Way’s standards—shines because of the acting, singing, choreography, staging, and refusal to be anything but what it wants to be. Oh, yeah, and it remains faithful to the silver screen’s original story of love and longing. They took the plot, tightened it up, gave it a shiny shoe polish, and delivered the goods. Credit goes to Book writer Edna Walsh for her skillful adaptation of John Carney’s original script.
Led by two superb leads, Steve Kazee and Cristin Milioti (as Guy and Girl, just like the film), Once pulls you in immediately, with a pre-show number that blends into Guy’s opener, “Leave.” Kazee’s voice is beautiful and crisp, moving from folksy to angst to powerhouse in the course of a few minutes. He’s not an American Idol contestant; he’s got far too much moxie (maybe those Voice people should contact him). Set in Dublin, with a unobtrusive set by Bob Crowley that looks like the friendliest pub this side of Cheers, Girl spots Guy, Girl likes Guy, Girl thinks Guy’s too talented to be playing guitar on the street and fixing vacuum cleaners for a living, Girl and Guy fall in love, with complications, Girl and Guy make beautiful music together.
Technically, Once is your basic musical theater confection, and that’s the key ingredient. Whereas Guy is the down-and-out Irish lover, Girl is the whip-smart Czechoslovakian optimist. Milioti doesn’t have the vocal prowess of Kazee (nor is she required to); she’s got the deadpan line delivery and masked sadness that surprises and delights at every seemingly simple transition. She no more pushes out an emotion than the show pushes out pyrotechnics. She’s just there, and that’s a treasure.
The simple plot has Guy and Girl deciding to make a demo of his songs, with the help of loyal friends. The “friends” are the various singer/actor/dancers/musicians who never leave the stage and who play different instruments throughout. Oh, yeah, and they move those set pieces with the skill of Cirque du Soleil performers. They’re terrific, and Once is a reminder that, in New York Theater, one should expect performers who can excel in several different areas. Why we’re usually asked to compromise when there is so much ridiculous talent out there is beyond me.
Director John Tiffany treats Once like a Chess piece. Every movement is specific and focused, whether it’s a vacuum cleaner rolling out of nowhere or a mirrored reflection of Girl at the piano, so the audience can see that she’s playing. The songs are effortless, the most famous being “Falling Slowly,” which won the Oscar. The other tunes glide into focus with ease, not pushed into the forefront so as to fill a perceived musical theater quota. The choreography—it’s called “Movement” in the Playbill—is by Steven Hoggett, and it’s subtle and unobtrusive. Whether it needs to be there is debatable, and the one area of the work that audience members are most likely to question.
Once is not supposed to be a dazzler nor a Kander and Ebb showstopper, and the songs are not typical Broadway fare. Think Irish, thing melancholy, think Dublin, and … well, you get the idea. In many ways the show’s spirit resembles Spring Awakening, but with better songs, or Dancing at Lughnasa, but without putting you to sleep. If it’s a hit, many theatergoers are likely to leave disenchanted, hoping they’d catch the next Priscilla or Legally Blonde. I love to be razzle-dazzled too, but until the next great musical comes along, I’ll gladly take this. For once, and with Once, there is a Broadway musical that’s everything but a sell-out.
For tickets, visit Telecharge.