nytheatre.com review by Michael Mraz
December 1, 2011
In 2006, Once, a small, beautiful indie film about a simple love story between a Dublin street busker and a Czech immigrant with a deep love of music, hit the screen. It garnered critical acclaim as a modern day musical and cultivated a devoted fan following, weaving its story with the music of its stars, Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová. Its flagship song, the gorgeous “Falling Slowly,” snagged the Academy Award for Best Song. New York Theatre Workshop and Director John Tiffany have worked to developed Once into a stage musical with a company of 13 actors. Due to the non-traditional integration of music into the movie’s story and the film’s cult following, this transition is a risky proposition. However, NYTW’s Once succeeds in beautifully recreating the simplicity of two strangers falling slowly in love and wrapping it warmly around the heart of the piece, Hansard and Irglová’s score.
From the moment the audience walks into the space they are immediately immersed in the world of the play. The all-purpose set for the show is a rustic Dublin Pub, designed by Bob Crowley. The walls are covered in mirrors and candles, creating a very warm, visually striking atmosphere when paired with Natasha Katz’s dazzling lighting. The entire cast is onstage as patrons of the bar, playing guitars, ukuleles, violins, etc. and singing along to traditional Irish and Czech songs, and the audience members are invited onstage, as it doubles as the bar for the theatergoers as well (same during intermission), a particularly brilliant touch.
After a few warm-up songs to establish the beginning of the show, Once begins chronicling the coming-together of two lost souls. Steve Kazee (as “Guy,” the leading man) busks on the streets of Dublin while helping his father fix vacuum cleaners in the family shop, but after losing his lover—who has left for the excitement and opportunity of New York City—he has lost his will to create music; and his will to live, until he meets “Girl” (Cristin Milioti). “Girl” is a charmingly blunt, overly-personable Czech immigrant who happens upon “Guy” in the street and instantly falls in love with his music, and, as luck would have it, also has a broken vacuum that needs fixing. The complete opposite of the reserved “Guy,” she begins to slowly pull him out of the shell he’s retreated into and champions his return to loving music. Her goal is to get enough money and people together to record a proper demo for “Guy” so that he can go to New York and win his lover back, who has inspired his beautiful songs. But as things progress, it turns out that their inspiration and their will to live and love may lie in each other.
Kazee and Milioti blaze onstage together as the heart of the show. Both are immensely talented musicians and actors, but their chemistry together both musically and as performers is even better. You can feel their opposite portrayals of each character’s personalities, tugging at each other and balancing. Their love is subtle and tentative, but it doesn’t keep it from shining brightly. In fact, one of the only heavy-handed moments of the script, a scene in which “Guy” and “Girl” are separately interrogated by another character as to their feelings for the other, seems all the more overly expository because of how beautifully the sweet, simple love story is underscored by their performances, John Tiffany’s direction, and the rest of the script.
Even more impressive though, is how well they bring to life Hansard and Irglová’s music. They blend so well together that the voices who originated those songs are not missed. Musical supervisor Martin Lowe could not have done a better job recreating the score and finding where each piece fits within the stage adaptation. Using the other 11 cast members as his “orchestra” onstage, the ensemble creates a gorgeous, immersive soundscape.
The rest of the ensemble equals the two leads in heart and talent, and provide the hilarious and, at times, touching moments of comic relief, which Enda Walsh’s book balances well against the earnest, sincere central story.
Where there were so many possible pitfalls in the translation of this piece to the stage, the entire crew of Once does a remarkable admirable job of not only staying true to the spirit and sincerity of its source material, but creating a unique, poignant theatre experience. Every part of its detailed design and earnest execution equals the beautiful harmonics of its music. It all fits together so well. Just before the end of the first act, “Guy” introduces one of his songs saying “For ah...well for those of us still livin’. ‘Cause to live… you have to love.” NYTW’s Once shows us just how important that is.
[Editor's Note: Once will transfer to Broadway in February, following the run at NYTW.]