Florida Report From NYC: “Once” Is Charming, Affecting Tale

Or Coming To A Theater Near You (Or Not)

By Bill Hirschman

Welcome to our semi-annual scouting trip for shows likely to appear in South Florida in a local production or a national tour — or shows you should make a point of seeing/avoiding on your next trip. Among them:  Leap of Faith (starring Miami’s Raul Esparza), Other Desert Cities (announced for Actors Playhouse next season),  Peter and the Starcatcher (based on books by the Herald’s Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson), Once, Nice Work If You Can Get It, The Columnist, End of the Rainbow, Venus in Fur and a revival of  A Streetcar Named Desire with an African-American cast. See links at the bottom of each story for previous reviews in the series.

Today’s Review: Once

An emotional warmth suffuses an audience when a piece of theater touches them in the same elemental way. It reinforces a sense of community and our common humanity. You get a similar buzz when you discover a fresh talent at a jam session at an open mike evening at a bar.

That’s the feeling flowing over you while watching Once, the affecting musical that speaks to the regenerative power of love and the ability that music has to spotlight our kinship with each other.

It’s gentle charm has even garnered 11 Tony Award nominations and it’s considered the dark horse that might possibly topple the slick odds-on favorite, Disney’s dance-driven Newsies.

Loosely adapted from the 2006 indie film of the same name, Once tells a bittersweet story about an emotionally wounded singer-songwriter in Ireland and the quirky Czech émigré who champions his music career as both gingerly fall in love during a single week.

The protagonists “Guy” and “Girl” bring such insurmountable baggage to their relationship that they and we know that they must take from this what they can while they can. He pines for a lover who has moved to America; in fact, she is the muse for his new batch of songs; he plans to abandon music and move overseas soon. Girl, too, has obstacles in the form of a daughter, an estranged husband and emotional hurt that she tries to ignore by submerging herself in helping Guy become a success when she hears him play in the pub. While there is a veil of sadness over the star-crossed couple, the script by Enda Walsh is leavened by generous veins of wry Irish black humor.

In this intimate theater piece, the arc of their love story is retold in a Dublin pub by a group of 12 musicians who jam there. They provide the acting troupe, stage crew and on-stage orchestra.

The score is comprised of Guy’s tender songs performed by the couple and the company as they rehearse and perform them for the pub’s audience. They don’t advance the plot so much as express the singers’ feelings. It’s  an emotionally pungent folk-pop meld written by Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová who starred in the movie and wrote tunes for the film. They took home an Oscar for Best Song for “Falling Slowly,” which is in the play along with 13 other songs. The music is generally gorgeous with echoes of Joni Mitchell and Nanci Griffith, especially when Guy on guitar and Girl playing piano let the music speak what their mouths cannot. With the exception of an electric bass, it’s all acoustic: guitars, mandolins, fiddles, accordion, cello, banjo, melodica, drum set, even banging on wooden milk boxes.

The whole evening feels very simple, but in fact, each element is skillfully crafted from Walsh’s book to the inspired leadership of director John Tiffany, music supervisor Martin Lowe and movement by Steven Hoggett (responsible with Tiffany for the stunning Black Watch).

For instance, the first act closer is the hero’s nervous debut of his new material at an open mike night. But as the ineffably beautiful song, “Gold,” moves from solo stanza to verse and on, each person in the bar stands up one-by-one and joins in with his or her voice and an instrument until the entire assemblage has become unified by the healing message of the song. Very simple, but very effective.

Tiffany, in particular, has bravely allowed his cast members to take their time before speaking when the conversations belie deeply felt emotions. He lets the dialogue breathe with long pauses and hesitations just as real people do when they are tentatively trying to find ways to express what they feel.

The cast has few if any Irish nationals in it, but these New York actors convincingly inhabit the Children of Eire. Steve Kazee (110 in the Shade and Monty Python’s Spamalot) has a quiet charisma that effortlessly wins you over and he’s undeniably good-looking in a scruffy way. But his strength is his voice, which seems made for this score. With the ease of someone who seemingly wrote this music, he knows and delivers every surface emotion and subtler subtext.

He is matched by the Cristin Milioti as the gamine heroine with a Czech accent. She has a sort of child’s voice, yet her wounded eyes mark her as someone who has already been buffeted by an adult’s share of life. Her intentionally idiosyncratic take on the Girl is someone who seems fiercely direct in her speech as if she has no time for false niceties or that speaking in a second language has required her to streamlined common human interactions.

Although the actors are portraying two wary people struggling with emotional blockages, the couple has a surprising chemistry.

Bob Crowley’s set design of a nurturing semi-circular bar lined with assorted mirrors feels both authentic and a bit fantastical. Even the battered instruments seem to have a history. Guy’s guitar in particular is a classic Martin but with the paint scraped off where someone has been strumming it for a couple of generations.

One ingenious idea, for a Broadway show at least, is that once the doors to the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre open a half-hour before curtain, audience members can come up and order beer, wine and water from the on-stage bar. But even better, much of the cast spends that half-hour in a rousing, foot-stomping jam session of Irish and Czech folk songs reinterpreted through a modern sensibility. It’s worth getting there early.

You can also go back up on stage at intermission. So if you’ve ever wanted to stand on a Broadway stage and look out on a full house, this is your chance.

Some people will likely feel this is all a bit too precious and twee. But for romantics willing to loan their heart for a couple of hours, Once will charm your soul.

Whether it tours will depend on the guts of the producers, but one of its virtues is its relatively large cast of multi-talented performers that create the sense of community that elevates this beyond a simple love story. Whether someone will spring for that expense is the question mark. So our advice is see it in New York while you can.

Previous reviews in the series:
Leap of Faith, click here.

To read a separate review of the original cast album, click here.

To see a promotional video, click here.

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4 Responses to Florida Report From NYC: “Once” Is Charming, Affecting Tale

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