By: Stewart Schulman
Cristin Milioti and Steve Kazee in a scene from
the Broadway musical Once
(Photo credit: Joan Marcus)
Having just seen the delightfully magical new musical Once, which opened on Broadway on March 18th, and having also seen the little indie movie that inspired it, what stymies me is that one’s experience of two unique takes on what is essentially the same material, can be so diametrically opposed. Once, the movie, left this reviewer wanting, whereas Once, the Broadway musical, seems to electrify the stage of the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre. I keep wondering why.
Context and vantage point surely affect our perceptions. Right or wrong, we bring our ‘current’ selves into our experience of a work of art. Still, the reality is, there are factors beyond ‘us’ that color our appreciation of art. The nature of film is to magnify minutiae, which in turn, demands a greater believability quotient for content. On the contrary, in musical theater, where people are, after all, singing to one another, a suspension of disbelief of even the most ‘incredible’ material is the name of the game.
That is certainly the case with the thin and often unbelievable plot of a fairy tale like Once, which seemed exaggerated in its source medium. Yet somehow, due to a poignant and charming book by Irish playwright Enda Walsh (adapted from the screenplay by John Carney), the work of an incredible ensemble cast and spot-on design team, some ingenious movement by Steven Hoggett, and truly mesmerizing direction by John Tiffany, this new stage production triumphs.
The story line itself is simple—perhaps too simple. After a not-to-be-missed informal pre-show of Irish music and dance, a young down-on-his-luck Dublin busker, listed only as "Guy", a charismatic Steve Kazee, joins a group of street musicians and offers up his ‘final’ song. When we first meet him, “Guy” is disillusioned and ‘done’ with songs, music, his guitar, and the ex-girlfriend who broke his heart. Lured by his impressive talent and his music, a young Czech woman, listed only as "Girl," an enchanting Cristin Milioti, engages “Guy” with her mystical charm, and distracts him off his desired path of self-destruction.
Upon finding out that he repairs vacuum cleaners in his father's shop, “Girl” asks him to mend her own broken Hoover, which she just happens to be carrying—eventually paying him not with money, but with music she plays for him at a music store where she regularly plays the piano. She also insists he teach her a song of his, "Falling Slowly," which won the Academy Award for Best Song in 2007 for the film version. Their musical and potential romantic bonds are thus formed. And a magical week together of making music, and not making love, begins. And that’s about it.
Sure, she meets his Da. He meets her Mom, and her friends. They inspire one another, fall in love, cut some demos of his songs, and constantly ache inside, as star-crossed lovers often do. I won’t reveal the obstacle to their being together here, but truly, not much more happens. And curiously, what seemed slight and unsatisfying on the big screen, feels wrenchingly moving on stage.
Perhaps this is due to the whimsical flair with which the story has been adapted by Mr. Walsh. Or the haunting folk-rock score that pulsates with Irish and Slavic emotionality by Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová—a score which is, by the way, a refreshing detour from the over-amplified pop-rock sounds permeating Broadway these days. Or maybe it’s due to the aforementioned movement and direction by Mr. Hoggett and Mr. Tiffany.
It certainly could stem from the chemistry between the two fantastic leads—Kazee and Milioti, who are not yet “STARS,” but clearly soon will be. Or the way the entire Company of uber-talented actor/musicians plays a variety of roles and instruments and move props and set pieces around, creating a world of interesting characters, while simultaneously facilitating a myriad of seamless scenic transitions.
Or still, it might be the clever use of super-titles indicating when the Czechs are speaking their native tongue. Or maybe it’s the design elements that are responsible. Bob Crowley’s simple but effectively pedestrian costumes fashioned against his time-worn dark wood semi-circular pub set, illuminated by Natasha Katz’s contemporary urban chiaroscuro lighting, evoke the moody emotional tone of the piece perfectly.
Well, whatever it is that gives the musical Once its newfound appeal may be difficult to pinpoint. But what’s clear is that the theater is the perfect medium for it. The implausible journey of “Guy” and “Girl” plays out infinitely better theatrically than it did cinematically. It’s no wonder that this small ‘Once upon a time’ about a few inconsequential lives, elusive dreams, and an ‘impossible’ love, feels so refreshingly unique, that what once may have seemed ‘not there,’ examined once again, seems endlessly present and wonderful.
Once (open run)
Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre, 242 West 45th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-239-6200 or (800) 432-7250 or visit www.telecharge.com
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