Steve Kazee and Cristin Milioti deliver one of the Broadway season’s great harmonies
By Doug Strassler
“A girl walks into bar” sounds more the jumping off point for a dirty joke than a sensitive but Broadway musical, yet that’s exactly how we meet Girl (Cristin Milioti), the generically-named but smartly-played female lead of Once. And its high-caliber performing of that sort that prevents what might seem a slight concept from being merely one-note.
One can correctly refer to Once as the “little show that could.” Just like John Carney’s movie, from which it is adapted, morphed from an indie Irish movie to Oscar-winning cult hit, so, too, did this musical travel from downtown’s intimate New York Theater Workshop to Broadway’s Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre. Don’t be fooled by its quick incubation period, however. Director John Tiffany’s production is warm, wise, and most assuredly mature.
Those familiar with the movie or who caught Once downtown know its “Guy meets Girl” structure – literally, Girl, a Czech aspiring pianist, meets Guy (Steve Kazee), a soulful musician in Dublin, just as he’s ready to chuck his guitar. The two are in mutual funks; Guy’s girlfriend has moved to New York, while Girl has left a man of her own behind. Girl encourages Guy to continue pursuing his music, and the two begin playing together, but are they moving closer to one another, or merely reviving the momentum for each to move forward in their own individual lives?
We ponder this question as we watch them breathe new life into the mournfully adult songs of Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová, the real-life erstwhile couple who starred in and composed the songs for Carney’s movie. And watching is as integral to the process of enjoying Once as listening to its score (music supervisor Martin Lowe did the orchestrations, as Tiffany and choreographer Stephen Hoggett (Beautiful Burnout, Peter and the Starcatcher) move their story around Bob Crowley’s semi-circle barroom set, punctuated by Natasha Katz’s lighting design. These songs take on a texture of their own. Characters may sing lonely songs – but when they do so together, it creates a sense of community nonetheless. An ensemble of additional musicians adorning the periphery of the stage join in to play a variety of supporting roles (among them, David Patrick Kelly, Anne L. Nathan, and Andy Taylor also stand out). Yet watch what Hoggett and Tiffany do when, for example, Elizabeth A. Davis and Erikka Walsh do when joining Milioti, stomping during “If You Want Me.” A soliloquy of yearning has suddenly turned into into a harmonious hymn of resolve.
Unfortunately, Enda Walsh’s adaptation of Carney’s script bloats the story a bit. There’s no reason for the story of Guy and Girl to last 150 minutes; in truth, an intermission-less 90 minutes would have probably proved more effective and kept the show a bit tauter. But it’s the characterizations that provide dimension, peeling back the layers adults wear to hide their fears and vulnerability. Kazee succeeds in slowly letting both Guy’s hurt and his hubris rise to the surface, while Milioti defies letting the stubborn Girl become just a bag of tics. Both sing beautifully, and in character, particularly in the famed “Falling Slowly” but also on such other numbers as “Gold,” “When Your Mind’s Made Up” and the haunting eleventh-hour number, “The Hill.” Music is the food of love here, and we’re happy to see this company play on.
Once, Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre, 242 W. 45th St. $59.50 – $131.50 oncemusical.com.
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