"Once" More, With Feeling

If you got that Buffy the Vampire pun-ish title, we can be friends.

As much as I would love to work on a musical, from conception to the closing night curtain call and everything in-between…it’s difficult and the process poses many challenges. Plot, storyline, characters and character development, music, choreography, casting, lighting, set design, etc…to me, the never-ending possibilities of combinations – by that, to which degree is each element is emphasized or de-emphasized - would drive me insane and keep me second-guessing every creative aspect.

Why say this as my lead-in? Because Once, which just officially opened at the Bernard Jacobs Theatre after its Off-Broadway run at the New York Theatre Workshop, is a masterpiece of minimalism that forgoes a large budget, ostentatious flair, elaborate music/vocal arrangements, choreography, set design…oh, and many standard conventions of musical theater.

But here’s how I know Once succeeds: I would not amend a thing and even if I would act on some quibbles, I could not recommend a suitable change myself. Like the very good, if slightly boring, movie the production is based off of (which also won the Oscar for Best Original Song for “Falling Slowly”), Once turns its evident, “on the surface” flaws into (mostly) positive contributions in the show’s favor.

Wait, what? How did that happen? But it’s true…the seemingly underdeveloped plot, characters, direction and staging is sacrificed in favor of passion, emotion, a classical romance with enough nuance to feel fresh and the chemistry between “Guy” and “Girl” (yes, the audience is never introduced to the main love interest’ names). With so many shifts and imbalances in the show’s creative equilibrium sotospeak, you would think it would crash and burn under the weight of the 21st century standard to embellish every little aspect…but it doesn’t; this is how you do minimalism in 2012. Class is dismissed.

EDIT: How could I have not noticed that the show’s playwright was Enda Walsh? I caught his most recent production of Misterman in Brooklyn back in December, one of the most interesting and visceral shows I have ever seen (and a killer performance by Cillian Murphy).

In short, every creative decision, no matter how small, is maximized for full-payoff, right down to the added numbers for the show’s Broadway runs. For what it is, it is so well-done that the entire package is a light, airy, melancholy, old-fashioned, joyful, occasionally sad, but moving and heartfelt love story. Above all, and the best frequent way I describe Once to friends…it is beautiful.

Okay, that last paragraph had a lot of adjectives in it. Moving on…

For the unfamiliar, the story goes down like this. Set in Dublin, Ireland, Guy is sad because his recent ex-girlfriend moved to New York. Girl has a daughter and a weirdly astray husband. Girl hears Guy sing and convinces Guy to make an album and win back his girlfriend. Guy is lifted out of his funk. They experience a strong connection. Less the ending that I will not spoil, that just about covers it all. Seriously, that’s it; I was not kidding when I said the show is light on plot and storyline depth.

From a scenery perspective, the only major set piece is a fully functional bar that the audience can order drinks from and jam with the band before the show starts. Lesson to be learned Broadway show runners; the best way to make the audience feel like they are a part of the production is to…well, make them apart of the production. Like Hair or the currently running Priscilla Queen of the Desert and Godspell productions, bringing the audience on to the stage makes any show an instant crowd-pleaser.

But yes, back to the beautiful quality that is Once. When Guy and Girl first sing together – the fantastic “Falling Slowly” number – you are drawn into their world of unconditional love until the final reprise of said number and the ensuing fade to black. There are a few distractions along the way; namely, the ensemble’s interlude numbers to maintain the Dublin feel and their spontaneous, but irrelevant “break-out into dance” moments. They fit within the feel of the show and it is to their credit that the Dublin backdrop (other then the Irish accents) is not forgotten. But when Guy and Girl are front and center on the dialogue and performing front, the show hits its higher-then-high points and pulls out all of the romantic big guns. The writing and the music are so touching and honest and filled to the brim with emotion…bring some tissues; you’ll be glad you did.

Steve Kazee may not sustain a convincing Irish accent, but he just about gets it right in every other regard with the character of Guy. He won’t make you forget Glen Hansard’s impeccable portrayal, but Kazee’s soft and sensitive voice makes for wonderful versions of “Leave” and “Say It To Me Now.” He also does a pretty good job of channeling the lament of heartbreak and having that strong emotion permeate through every number and scene.

On the other hand, Cristin Milioti, as Girl, is a scene-stealing dynamo. Her Czech accent is spot-on and Milioti embodies that abrasive and passionate kindred spirit so well, it must be a part of actual personality to make the character seem so fully realized. As a whole, Girl’s characterization is dialed up from the movie in an otherwise faithful adaptation. All of Girl’s laughs were well-earned and the fact that she drew them from her straight-faced, brazen delivery just shows you how great she is. Her solo numbers do not register as any favorite of mine, but that is just me personally. Otherwise, she is precious and lovable in all of her accent-related puns, piano-bowing and her scrappy determination in helping Guy realize his music potential.

This fall season was an original musical bloodbath – Bonnie and Clyde, Lysistrata Jones and Stick Fly were all relevantly short-lived and the former had some bad publicity to further bludgeon its run. Great shows don’t need a long run-time in order to validate their quality, but it certainly does not hurt. I think Once is great enough to avoid this fate, even with the intrigued, potential theatergoers who could settle for a night on the couch watching the DVD copy instead of trekking over to Times Square (a question worth asking for any movie adaptation)? This production is the first original show in a long-time that finally got it right; by that merit alone, it will be fine.

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