What a pleasure it is to experience a musical that doesn’t make your ears bleed with blasted sound. Once is a rare Broadway musical gem, which steps center stage with stellar talent and sheer charm. Based on the movie of the same name, the show includes “Falling Slowly,” which won the Oscar for best song, a harmonious score, and a bevy of rousing Irish folk-pop music to boot. While I’m at it, I’m recommending the Once CD, which is now available.
This production, directed by John Tiffany, began in a church basement at Harvard, and had a successful Off-Broadway run at New York Theatre Workshop before gracing the Great White Way. Too often, small shows disappear on the big stage, but Once translates remarkably well.
The bittersweet story, which takes place in a Dublin Pub, revolves around Girl, a Czech single mother in a strange land, and Guy, a talented singer/songwriter who has become nearly suicidal over a lost love. Cristin Milioti is a tiny birdlike gamin with timing sent down from the theatrical gods. Steve Kazee is a ruggedly handsome leading man with a rare vulnerability which renders him pretty much irresistible. She plays the piano, he the guitar, and together, they work to save his music career. The obvious chemistry between the two actors is paramount; the show just wouldn’t work without it.
No less impressive is the ensemble of ten musicians playing a variety of instruments. As the audience enters, a concert is taking place on stage. It’s hard to know where to look first. A pretty girl with long brown is clad in a flowered dress and cowboy boots. There’s a typically Irish looking redhead, a John Cusack lookalike, and an older man in a fedora. They play songs which are familiar to those who love the rousing Irish melodies of “Leaving Of Liverpool” and other classics of the genre. The superb playing of the guitars, banjo, violin, and tambourine make the toes tap, and dancing in the aisles seems a real possibility.
The braver spectators get up on the stage, and in keeping with the bar motif, have a drink. When everyone clears off, the lights dim, and the presentation begins. The young man sings a sad song, and plans to leave his guitar behind when he goes. The young woman is shocked that he’s given up on himself. He’s a vacuum cleaner—or “Hoover”— repairman. She has a vacuum cleaner that “doesn’t suck” and needs repair. She will play the piano for him; he will fix the machine. And so it begins.
As the relationship progresses, Guy meets Girl’s elfin daughter, and her passionate mother, as well as her flat mates. They’re a raucous gang of Czechs who are addicted to soap opera and to music. Girl meets Guy’s father, who asks her point blank “Is he OK?” He knows his son is troubled, but has no idea what to do about it.
There are certain conventions applied which work beautifully. Rather than have Czech spoken with English subtitles, characters speak in English, with Czech subtitles displayed on the back wall. Members of the ensemble spend a good deal of time seated on the sides of the stage, the better to join in with the music. The fact that all the music is provided by these musician actors adds to the intimacy of the piece. Less effective is the strange ballet of three women singing “satisfy me,” complete with wafty arm movements.
This is a lovely soap bubble of a production, played with great delicacy and precision. It’s both a soufflé, and a corned beef and cabbage feast. There is a touch of Brigadoon, a smidgen of The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, and a dose of The Drowsy Chaperone. It’s funny, and sad, and at times, downright philosophical. But most of all, if you love musical theater, it’s a show you shouldn’t miss.
Photos by Joan Marcus
Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre
242 West 45th Street
Michall Jeffers is an accomplished Cultural Journalist. She writes extensively, both in print and online. Her eponymous cable TV show is syndicated throughout the tri-state area, and features celebrity interviews, reviews, and commentary. She is a voting member of Drama Desk, Outer Critics Circle, American Theatre Critics Association, and International Association of Theatre Critics.