Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Theater Review: Once

Location: Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre, 242 West 45th Street, NY, NY

Website: Official Once website 

Starring: Steve Kazee, Cristin Milioti, David Abeles, Will Connolly, Elizabeth A. Davis, David Patrick Kelly, Anne L. Nathan, Andy Taylor

My Review: I’m not a romantic person by nature (understatement of the year), but something about Once just gets to me. I’ve seen the 2006 movie dozens of times and get emotional over it at every viewing, like I don’t know exactly what’s going to happen at every moment. Now Once has been translated into a stage musical that, after a successful run Off-Broadway, has made its way to a Broadway theater, and I have a whole new entertainment experience to get all teary-eyed about.

Set in Ireland and based on the small independent movie of the same name (and Academy Award winner for Best Song), Once tells the story of a brokenhearted Irish street musician (known simply as Guy) who meets a Czech girl (known as, yup, Girl). Guy’s been recently dumped by a woman who fled to New York with someone else, and reacts by pouring all his anger and pain into his music. Girl sees him performing and informs him that if he plays those songs for his lost love, he’ll win her back. Girl is also a musician herself and comes up with the idea that with Guy on guitar and lead vocals, her on piano singing backup, and a few additional musicians, they could record a demo tape that he could take on his trip to New York to get his music career off the ground. So they set out to make this dream a reality, and attempt to push aside those pesky feelings that they’re starting to develop for each other in the process. 

Being so familiar with the source material, it’s impossible for me to talk about Once the stage musical without comparing it to Once the movie. So I’m not even going to try. While I didn’t find the stage musical to be quite as charming and touching as the movie, it was still an excellent night at the theater. While I was expecting some tweaks and changes from the movie, one of the most jarring edits were those made to the Girl character. In the movie she’s supportive and determined, but without being pushy or abrasive; in the stage musical, she’s pushy to the point that the show becomes more her story than Guy’s. In the beginning she basically berates Guy to play his music for her and demands that he go to New York to win back his ex, despite his initial lack of desire to do either of those things. It also doesn’t help that Cristin Milioti barks her various orders at him with a very thickly laid on European accent (if it’s anything close to a Czech accent, I couldn’t say, but it sounds nothing like the Girl in the movie, who is played by Czech musician Markéta Irglová).

The beloved folksy rockish songs of the movie are present and still as emotionally resonant as ever. The cast doubles as the orchestra, playing their instruments out on the open stage for each musical number, and even entertain the audience with some rollicking Irish tunes before the curtain goes up (metaphorically, since there actually isn’t any curtain). In an effort to expand the stage musical from the 85-minute long movie, some additional songs are added (penned by the original movie composers Glen Hansard and Irglová), and while they were enjoyable at the time, I’m hard-pressed to remember much about them now.

In another attempt to expand the show to Broadway musical length, minor characters are given more to do. Instead of merely allowing Guy and Girl to use his showroom pianos, the music shop owner actively engages with them and becomes part of their demo recording band. As does the bank manager who grants them a loan to pay for the recording session. Girl now also has a group of Czech roommates who are primarily used for comic effect as they are learning to speak English from a torrid Irish soap opera. While these character additions aren’t detrimental to the story, I wish they had remained in the background so as not to periodically steal focus from Guy and Girl, who are the heart and soul of the whole operation (even if it meant having a short show and forfeiting the need for an intermission).

Bottom Line: While it occasionally dips into the well of overly simplified bon mots (there’s some nonsense about “never leaving unfinished love behind” that gets bandied about), Once is still a charming tale told with fantastic music about that rare and magical occurrence of genuine human connection. Just maybe make Girl a bit less of an emotional bulldozer going forward.