The musical “Once” opened on Broadway March 18 in a commercial transfer of a prior production at Off Broadway’s New York Theater Workshop. The following is Steven Suskin’s review of that earlier production (Daily Variety Dec. 6, 2011).
Having won the hearts of movie auds in 2007, “Once” has been creatively expanded and adapted for the stage with terrific results. Songwriters Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova (who starred together in the movie) have joined playwright Enda Walsh and the “Black Watch” team of director John Tiffany and choreographer Steven Hoggett to create a rhapsodic, unique stage musical that retains all the heart of the original Irish film. Machinations for a quick Broadway transfer are underway, with strong prospects; “Once” may not be enough for this impeccably made show.
Like the film, the tuner tells the bittersweet love story of an unnamed guy (Steve Kazee) and girl (Cristin Milioti) who over the course of a week meet and make beautiful music together — here, as beautiful as much of what’s uptown on the Rialto. Oscar-winning song “Falling Slowly” is already well known, but many of the show’s tunes equal it, notably “If You Want Me” and “The Hill.”
The show has no orchestra (the actors play instruments throughout), but it’s an intrinsic part of the storytelling rather than a stunt. This means as many as eight guitars playing together, which — mixed with violin, viola and voice — proves surprisingly effective.
Eight of the 13 songs from the film are retained, with a few additions. Playwright Walsh, for his part, is true to John Carney’s screenplay, but has expanded some subsidiary roles into full characters. Walsh (“Misterman”) has also added humor; for all its moody romancing and atmospheric color, “Once” is quite funny.
Tiffany grabs the audience from the opening, when the story springs from a preshow jam session. Hoggett (“American Idiot”), meanwhile, provides arresting movement for his non-dancers. In the first-act finale, the musicians grow so engrossed that they are magnetically drawn from their chairs, dancing in formation while still playing — even the cellist. (This same song, “Gold,” is later reprised a cappella.)
Orchestrator/music supervisor Martin Lowe deserves credit for translating the songs to the stage; the methods and results are key to the overall success. There is also a Broadway-caliber physical production from vets Bob Crowley (“The Coast of Utopia”) and Natasha Katz (“Follies”). Crowley has designed a massive Dublin barroom, which also serves as a liquor bar before the show and at intermission. The walls are crammed with 59 frosted mirrors, which the designers selectively use to reflect the action. Crowley’s costumes for Dublin poor and Czech immigrants are just right, while Katz’s touches include a dazzling nightscape with some fiber-optic sleight-of-hand.
The two leads are exceptional. Kazee (“110 in the Shade”) makes a fine leading man, likable and attractive but conveying the character’s inner anguish when he sings. Milioti is perfect as the straightforward and blunt heroine; she plays the part so well you wonder whether she is indeed a Czech import. (She’s from New Jersey.) Both excel as musicians as well.
Paul Whitty, Andy Taylor and David Patrick Kelly stand out among the excellent ensemble, along with Elizabeth A. Davis for both her acting and viola skills.
Lest one wonder how this intimate affair would translate for Broadway, it’s worth noting the show has a large cast and a full-sized physical production that seems too wide for some smaller uptown houses. Still, it’s the tender love story and the soaring songs that make “Once” a winner.