Theater review: 'Once' on Broadway
Broadway musicals spawned from movies are usually big, brash, bawdy affairs — think “Sister Act” and “Priscilla Queen of the Desert,” two giddy disco balls launched last season.
The gossamer charms of a small, whimsical Irish film such as “Once,” John Carney’s entrancing 2006 sleeper about a brief encounter between a Dublin street musician and a pixieish Czech immigrant, would seem to have little chance of surviving in today’s heavily sequined theatrical marketplace.
“Falling Slowly,” the Oscar-winning tune written by the movie’s stars, Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová, is as beguilingly romantic as it is sweetly melancholy, but an 11 o’clock number it definitely isn’t.
So it’s a little surprising, though very satisfying, to report that the musical “Once” has made a happy Broadway landing at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre, which has converted its stage into an old-fashioned Irish pub to make everyone feel, if not quite as cozy as they did at New York Theatre Workshop, where the work debuted late last year, at least just as relaxed and welcome.
Even before the show officially begins, company members are onstage playing and stomping to music that would have “Riverdance” revelers clicking their heels in Celtic ecstasy. There’s no way for the production, directed by John Tiffany and choreographed by Steven Hoggett (both of whom lent their hypnotic talents to the National Theatre of Scotland’s internationally acclaimed “Black Watch”), to approximate the same sense of discovery that the low-budget movie engendered. But the staging’s sprightly theatricality and casual grace are delightful compensations.
The only major problem with the show, which stars Steve Kazee and Cristin Milioti as the characters known simply as Guy and Girl, is that it overstretches its material. There really isn’t enough story or music for two acts. The film didn’t need more than 90 minutes to complete the arc of this adult fable, and neither does the stage version.
The book by Enda Walsh — one of Ireland’s most brazenly original playwrights, as anyone who caught “The Walworth Farce” or “The New Electric Ballroom” at the 2009 UCLA Live International Theatre Festival can attest — accentuates the storybook whimsy. Walsh has no patience for exposition, and so the musical starts boldly and baldly with Guy singing his anguished heart out and Girl appearing out of nowhere to rescue him when she notices that he has ominously left his guitar behind him on the ground.
Guy’s girlfriend has moved to New York, and his music career is at a standstill. The ache in his voice isn’t a style but an existential reality. Sensing his crisis, Girl does her best to keep the conversational ball rolling. When she finds out he fixes Hoovers for a living with his father (an appealing David Patrick Kelly), she magically pulls out a vacuum of her own that needs repairing. If this sounds annoyingly fey, it is handled by Kazee, who’s more straightforwardly handsome than his scruffy movie counterpart, and Milioti, who is just as waifish as hers, with a jaunty touch that manages to maintain the work’s amber glow.
“His life’s stopped,” Girl tells her mother (Anne L. Nathan), who is as earthy as her daughter is ethereal. “But he has a good heart.”
The truth is that Girl is stuck too. Her man has left her, and, though she is as devoted to music as Guy is, she hasn’t enough money for her own piano. She wants to repay Guy for fixing her vacuum by playing for him, but this requires a visit to the music shop owned by Billy (Paul Whitty), a kooky loner with a jealous streak who looks upon Girl as “an angel of divinity.” (Such an overripe description can make Girl seem like a visitor from another planet, but Milioti finds opportunities to become flesh and blood every time she takes flight in song.)
The characters are all heightened to fit the urban fairy tale milieu. The only realistic element of the production is the depth of feeling that passes between Guy and Girl, both of whom are encumbered by previous relationships but in desperate need of a collaborative hand.
As practical as she is quixotic, Girl arranges a recording studio session so they can produce a demo of Guy’s music, which she knows will be embraced by the world if only it can be heard. She gathers up a few Czech musician friends, obtains a loan from a bank manager (Andy Taylor), who just happens to be a frustrated musician, soothes Billy’s whirligig temper and gets the whole lot of them to make beautiful folksy Irish music together.
Two things save this inspirational tale from becoming precious — the music, which is better than the dialogue, and the book’s refusal to satisfy the expectations of traditional romance. Indeed, there are more believable ways for Guy and Girl to love than in the standard “and they lived happily ever after” format, and part of what is so touching about the musical is its recognition that even fleeting encounters of sublime tenderness can have a transfiguring impact.
The score by Hansard and Irglová carries the production harmonically aloft with a blend of sound that includes guitar, cello, ukulele, violin and other instruments, both exotic and familiar, that are played by cast members who remain visibly seated on the stage sidelines even when they’re not involved in a scene. This arrangement helps establish the lovely ebb and flow between speech and song that Tiffany’s staging and Hoggett’s choreography beautifully set in motion.
In this enchanted pub, designed by Bob Crowley and lighted by Natasha Katz, the actors are asked to fully contribute their music skills, just as the audience is invited to join them in helping to imagine this lyrical yarn. “Once” depends on your dreamy-headed complicity. But even if you resist, you’ll still be humming “Falling Slowly” on your way home.
-- Charles McNulty
Photos: Top, Steve Kazee as Guy and Cristin Milioti as Girl in 'Once.' Lower: Milioti and Kazee. Credit: AP Photo/Boneau Bryant Brown/Joan Marcus