Once, NY

Written by:
John Sullivan
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Book by Enda Walsh
Based on the motion picture written and directed by John Carney
Music and lyrics by Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová
Movement by Steven Hoggett
Directed by John Tiffany
Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre, New York City
Opening night: March 18, 2012

Part fairy tale and part star-crossed romance, steeped in the pungent bittersweetness of yearning, “Once” uses making music as a metaphor for making love — not sex, but what poet Bobbie Louise Hawkins calls “that flurry of feeling that if it continues and maintains intensity we call Love.” The saga of an Irish street-singer befriended by a Czech immigrant who becomes his collaborator, champion, and muse, “Once” began life as a low-budget film by John Carney featuring non-actors, shot in 17 days for $160,000. It went on to earn $20 million at the box office and an Academy Award for best song, “Falling Slowly,” written by the film’s co-stars, Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová. Now it has been adapted to the stage by Irish-born playwright Enda Walsh and the celebrated director-choreographer team John Tiffany and Steven Hoggett, who created a gem of a production that began Off-Broadway at New York Theater Workshop last fall and has now moved to Broadway, where it’s likely to stay for some time.

Two things gave the film its appeal: the simple archetypal boy-meets-girl story — the characters are literally called Guy and Girl — and the raw music-making on the streets of Dublin, in the music shop whose owner has a crush on Girl, and in the studio where they put together a demo of Guy’s songs. Lovely as Hansard’s ballads are, a little bit of his trying-too-hard-to-be-Van-Morrison singing goes a long way, and for me personally after awhile all the songs in the movie sounded alike. No such problem with the stage musical, thanks to Martin Lowe, whose gorgeous, often surprisingly spare orchestrations bring a variety of colors to the pop-folk score, as performed by the uniformly excellent 12-member cast of actor-musicians. Each of them plays one or more instruments, a la John Doyle’s recent Sondheim revivals, but there’s no cheating with triangles or tubas – these guys and gals all have serious chops, and collectively they’re amazing.

The stage version establishes itself as an intimate theatrical event the moment you walk in the door. The unitary set, ingeniously designed for the play’s multiple purposes by the great Bob Crowley, is an Irish pub open for business — audience members can order draughts and mill around while the cast warms up with a pre-show jam. When Guy enters and asks to take his turn at the open mike, the rest of the actors drift to the periphery of the stage, and Girl enters from the audience. From the first minute, Steve Kazee and Cristin Milioti hook you in and never let you go. Kazee is tall and handsome with a beautiful, steady vernacular tenor (no Broadway bombast, thank heavens) and a modesty that believably balances the would-be pop star with the guy who works by day at his father’s vacuum cleaner repair shop. Milioti is a poker-faced pixie whose size belies her brisk, persistent personality. “Yes, I’m always serious,” she says crisply. “I’m Czech.”

Walsh, several of whose quirky plays have been seen in New York at Brookyn’s hip showcase St. Ann’s Warehouse, has done a great job transforming Carney’s shambolic, semi-improvised screenplay so that every scene and character is tighter, funnier, and more colorful. The girlfriend that Guy has written his songs about now lives in New York (in the film, she was in London), which raises the stakes for his dilemma about following her or making a go of things with Girl. Meanwhile, Girl’s household of boisterous Czechs carry on with complete self-possession as if the show is really about them: Anne L. Nathan as Girl’s accordion-wielding mother; Elizabeth A. Davis as spunky Reza; Lucas Papaelias as the long-haired drummer Švec; and Will Connolly as adorably geeky Andrej, who’s so sure that his lucky shiny-silver “interview suit” will ensure his promotion from burger boy to regional manager.

No detail of the story is too small for Tiffany and Hoggett to lavish with wit and magic, whether it’s the appearance of a prop, a scene change, or conveying the subtext of a song. These guys gained international attention with their imaginative production of “The Black Watch,” Gregory Burke’s play about the Scottish regiment of the British Army fighting in Iraq. Two of the strongest elements from that show serve their staging of “Once” superbly well. One: they discard conventional ideas of blocking and choreography (and making distinctions between the two) but instead enliven the stage with fertile, unpredictable movement, keeping the audience and the performers on their toes with one delightful surprise after another. Two: they fully empower the performers as collaborators. In “Once,” every member of the ensemble is constantly shifting between playing and watching, acting and singing. And each character gets carefully etched; although Kazee and Milioti are clearly the central characters, none of the others disappear into their shadows. Paul Whitty’s big-bearded Billy, proprietor of the failing music shop, makes for a lovably mock-threatening protector. Andy Taylor’s Bank Manager catches your eye just from the way he wheels his cello around the stage, before he ever says a word. (A three-line exchange establishes that he’s gay without making any big fuss about it.) Guy’s Da has very little to do, but casting the multitalented downtown veteran David Patrick Kelly gives him gravitas from the get-go. Plus, he plays a mean mandolin.

For a delicious detail, watch how Andrej’s body, slumped on the kitchen floor in a post-interview dejected heap, becomes part of the contoured landscape of Dublin viewed from above by Guy and Girl on a fresh-air walk. (Lighting designer Natasha Katz is an equal partner in the show’s fleet, inventive storytelling.) And even though we only hear actors speaking English, we know when the Czechs converse in their native tongue because their dialogue appears in Czech surtitles — a good joke.

I love how the score gets sliced and diced. We hear a snatch of “Broken Hearted Hoover Fixer Sucker Guy,” no more than we need. Guy’s solo version of “Gold,” which ends the first act, blossoms into a full-company a cappella version that is the musical highlight of the second act. And everybody knows what a winner “Falling Slowly” is, and we’re overjoyed to hear it both early in the show and at the tail end.

There are definitely Broadway musicals that undertake deeper subject matter on more ambitious terms. But very few do what they do as sweetly, as honestly, and as exquisitely as “Once” does.

Don Shewey

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