Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Theater Review - Once

Book by Enda Walsh
Music by Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová
Directed by John Tiffany
Where: Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre, New York, NY
When: Wednesday, March 28, 2pm

Stunningly beautiful with an aesthetic simplicity that allows its music and story to come to the forefront, the new Broadway musical Once is a wonderful piece of theater that is an absolute must-see for anyone who is a fan of the Academy Award-winning film.  With music culled (for the most part) from the movie originally written by the film's stars Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova (who make up the folk rock duo The Swell Season), I admittedly was a bit hesitant going into seeing this.  I love the movie (it's in my Personal Canon), but I was extremely worried that these songs were too emotionally connected for me with Hansard's grittiness and Irglova's fragility (both of whom I've seen give an amazing live concert).  Fortunately, from the opening moments of Broadway's Once, my fears were quickly allayed and there were truly moments of chill-inducing magic playing out before my very eyes.  

The story of Once (both movie and Broadway show) is so basic it's a wonder that someone thought there'd be some form of entertainment in its straightforwardness.  There's an Irish Guy (who remains nameless throughout the production).  He's a guitar player who, when he's not working at his dad's vacuum cleaner repair shop, finds himself writing music that lately reflects a bad break-up with a girl to whom he still holds some feelings.  Then there's a Czech Girl (who also remains nameless) who hears the Guy's music and immediately feels a spiritual connection to him through his lyrics...problem is, she has a young daughter and other entanglements that prevent her from committing herself to any type of relationship with the Guy.  Over the course of a week, the two mutually better each others' lives, but find it increasingly more difficult to be near each other as they continue to be forced to suppress their true feelings.

The Broadway production follows a very similar storyline to the film, but I must admit that if one hadn't seen the film before, it's entirely possible that the simplicity of the scene changes may lead to confusion.  The stage never changes -- as we walk into the Bernard B. Jacobs theater, the stage is set up as an Irish pub from which theatergoers can actually purchase liquor and mingle with the play's cast of characters prior to the show as the ensemble treats us to a nearly twenty-minute "preshow" of sorts (so get there early).  However, since the stage never changes, we in the audience (with the assistance of Natasha Katz's sometimes beautiful lighting) are asked to imagine the scenes in the film that take place, for example, in the music shop where Guy and Girl sing the signature "Falling Slowly" or in the recording studio where Guy takes his shot at fame.  To me, having seen the movie multiple times, I knew where the piece was going and what I was supposed to be imagining.  To someone completely unfamiliar with the work, I can understand a bit of confusion.  This, along with the fact that there were a few scenes of dialog that brought the production to a slight lull at times, are my only qualms...and they're minor qualms at that.

Everything else in this show was worthy of accolades.  Steve Kazee and Cristin Milioti have a tough act to follow.  To me, the footsteps of Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová are big ones to fill and Kazee and Milioti do so admirably.  Kazee has Hansard's grit (incredibly evident in his fantastic take on "Say It to Me Now"), but he also brings a bit of a slightly smoother Broadway sound (shown in "Gold," a throwaway song for me in the film that's given prime billing [and a stirring a cappella reprise] in the stage show to great effect).  While different from Hansard, it's to Kazee's credit that I was able to completely forget about how great a singer Hansard is while watching Kazee.  

Admittedly, Milioti has things a little easier as Irglová isn't exactly the best vocalist in town, but what Irglová lacks in power, she more than makes up with in emotion.  However (and this is really where Enda Walsh's book comes into play and shines, perhaps even "bests" the movie in this regard), Milioti is given much more humor in Girl on stage than we ever see in the film version.  Milioti is precociously endearing right from her first lines and the audience swoons for her just as the Guy does.  Girl is soft-spoken, yet incredibly sincere and honest...all of which are accurate descriptors of the musical itself as well -- it's a small-scale, quiet piece about the highs and lows of love brought to us by two wonderful actors in Kazee and Milioti whose chemistry is undeniable.

I've yet to mention that the music in Once is played not by an orchestra in a pit, but by the talented acting ensemble (including Kazee on guitar and Milioti on piano) who hardly ever leave the stage.  Acting, playing an instrument, and dancing all at once at times (in some of the most uniquely "choreographed" numbers I've ever seen on stage crafted by Steve Hoggett whose "title" in the Playbill lists him doing the play's "Movement") is no small feat and the show has talent running throughout the entire ensemble.  [And let me tell you, there's something beautiful in hearing live string instruments take on these powerful songs...kudos to Orchestrator Martin Lowe.]

I'm not a big "standing ovation" guy at theater productions.  I'll certainly applaud whether I like something or not simply to show my appreciation for the hard work of the cast and crew (more vigorously if I really liked something than if I didn't).  But when Once ended, I stood up right away because this is a show that earned that respect.  I'm sure that my love for Broadway's Once stems from the fact that I adore the film.  If you've seen the film and hated it, this musical probably won't do a thing for you.  To me, however, this tale of love, loneliness, and friendship is a winner that is eloquently brought to the stage by director John Tiffany and the talented cast and crew he assembled that make Once something I'll probably be seeing more times than its title.  

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