“Once” Review: Falling Slowly on Broadway

Once.New York Theatre Workshop.
They meet on a Dublin street, he a street musician about to abandon his guitar, she a Czech pianist without a piano. In “Once” the Broadway musical, as in “Once” the small hit film, love begins with a broken vacuum cleaner.

The unnamed guy fixes vacuum cleaners for his father, his Da. The unnamed girl has a vacuum cleaner in need of fixing, promising to pay for its repair in his choice of currency — Bach, Bartok, Brahms, Mozart…or a composition she wrote herself.

Music is what draws them together over the course of the next week, and so, too, the music draws in the audience over the two hours plus of this stage adaptation. We, too, are being paid in song.

Eight of the 13 songs in the musical were also in the movie, original melodies by the two stars of the film, Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova, including of course the Oscar-winning “Falling Slowly.”

The 13 cast members don’t just sing and (on occasion) dance. They are also the orchestra. Next to each name in the cast list is both the role and the musical instruments the actor plays.

The musical is made up of lovely, bittersweet tunes tinged with the richness of Irish folk music. The live music and Martin Lowe’s orchestrations help answer the question posed by any screen-to-stage adaptation: Why not just rent the DVD?

Added to the mix on stage are more boisterous Irish foot-stompers, musical numbers that allow for some dancing atop tables, and for a line of performers wielding their instruments like weapons. But, perhaps in part because it began Off-Broadway at the New York Theatre Workshop, “Once” doesn’t make (what I consider) the mistake that Billy Elliot the Musical made, of jazzing up a quirky, low-key story with glitzy production numbers.
Twitter Badge (.gif)“Once” stays homey, charming, and inviting; on a smaller scale than usual for a Broadway musical, which turns out to be a good thing. It is also slow moving and slight. It requires patience, or at least the right mind-set, to fall for this show (Falling slowly, indeed.) The musical is an hour longer than the movie. But even with John Carney’s movie script adapted by a first-rate playwright, Enda Walsh (whose most recent play produced in New York was the eerie Misterman), the story in “Once” the musical is only a bit less sketchy than the film.
“Girl” has a daughter, and a husband, although he is back in the Czech Republic. “Guy” pines for a woman who has moved to New York. Their love is impossible but still, subtly, it grows, as they spend the week putting together a demo of his music.

Walsh has fleshed out some supporting characters and added new ones. The guy and girl enlist those around them to put together the demo: A music-loving bank manager from Cork (Andy Taylor, violin, accordion, cello, guitar mandolin) composes his own (terrible) songs; Svec, one of the girl’s roommates (Lucas Papaelias, banjo, guitar, mandolin, drum set), was a “death metal” drummer back home, but muffles the drums for these acoustical ditties by taking off his pants and using them as a muffler. Billy the music shop owner is played by a scene-stealing Paul Whitty (guitar, ukulele, cajon, snare drum), as a bearded good-natured eccentric who boasts of hot Spanish blood and a mastery of karate but convinces nobody of either.

The focus of “Once” of course remains the “Guy” and the “Girl, and it seems a smart choice to cast in these roles Steve Kazee (guitar) and Cristin Milioti (piano) — both relatively unknown, although this is Kazee’s fifth time on Broadway, and Milioti’s third. Yes, they are good-looking as well as talented, but even attractive people can feel insecure and behave tentatively.

Set designer Bob Crowley has created an authentic-looking Irish pub, with dark wood, etched glass doors and shimmering mirrors. It is all the more authentic because it actually functions more or less as a pub, selling drinks starting about a half hour before each performance and during intermission (for those who get there in time before the beefy bouncer blocks access to the stage.) Natasha Katz’s lighting (with assist from Clive Goodwin’s sound design) helps turn the one set into a range of scenes in and around Dublin, including both the girl’s and the guy’s crowded apartments, a bank, a recording studio, and a romantic cliff overlooking the sea. Most times, the actors not in the scene, sit in the rest of the pub, visible to the audience.

The paradox of the 2006 movie was that much of its appeal became its disproportionate success. A modest, largely improvised independent film made for $150,000, the movie “Once” so far has made more than $20 million worldwide. If only such economic miracles were possible on Broadway!

Once
at Bernard B. Jacobs Theater
Book by Enda Walsh, music and lyrics by Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova
based on the music picture written and directed by John Carney
Directed by John Tiffany
Scenic and costume design by Bob Crowley, lighting design by Natasha Katz, movement by Steven Hoggett, music supervisor and orchestrations by Martin Lowe.
Cast: Steve Kazee as ‘Guy’ and Cristin Milioti as ‘Girl.’ David Abeles, Claire Candela, Will Connolly, Elizabeth Davis, David Patrick Kelly, Anne L. Nathan, Lucas Papaelias, Andy Taylor, Erikka Walsh , Paul Whitty, J. Michael Zygo.

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Jonathan Mandell, who tweets as New York Theater, is a native New Yorker and third-generation journalist with diverse experience on newspapers, magazines and websites.He has written for a wide varie ...read more

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