Peter D. Kramer

See ‘Once’ at least twice

In Reviews on March 19, 2012 at 8:05 am

Like many contemporary Broadway musicals, “Once” — which opened last night at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre — is based on a feature film, a 2006 work of the same name.

Unlike other contemporary Broadway musicals, “Once” hasn’t a trace of irony or snark. Its touch is feather light, a musical unafraid of wearing its considerable heart on its sleeve, in a story without a buttoned-up ending.

“Once” is the real deal, a refreshing breath of fresh air.

It’s a boy-meets-girl story, about an Irish busker (simply “Guy”) and his whirlwind weeklong encounter with a Czech woman (“Girl”) he meets in Dublin. It stars Steve Kazee and Cristin Milioti (above, in a photo by Joan Marcus), as two lonely people who share their loneliness and a love of music.

Like recent John Doyle-directed productions of “Sweeney Todd” and “Company,” director John Tiffany has the entire company doing the heavy lifting as the band and the stage crew. The 10-member ensemble plays everything from ukulele to banjo to accordion to a beat box called a cajon.

When not playing a scene, the ensemble stays on stage for nearly the entire show, occupying chairs on the perimeter of Bob Crowley’s move-in-ready bar-room set, instruments ever at the ready. They bear witness to this story they’re helping to tell, their faces reflect in the myriad faded mirrors that line the walls.

(Arrive early and you can buy a drink at the on-stage bar before the show, as the ensemble hoots and hollers and plays songs, both Czech and Irish. Likewise, the bar is open at intermission, without musical accompaniment.)

Fans of the movie will find all of the songs that made it an Oscar-winner for Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova, the film’s stars: from the aching “Falling Slowly” to a tribal “Gold” and the raw “When Your Mind’s Made Up,” songs arranged to start simply and layer on more and more instruments. This crescendo of orchestration creates dramatic tension and heft, presenting the songs in their best possible light.

In a show of breathtaking simplicity, set changes are rapid — a table is moved in, a piano out, a vacuum cleaner is rolled into position. The moves, choreographed by Steven Hoggett, are all stylized and precise, but carried out with a natural ease that is fluid. Every detail has been seen to. We’re in good hands.

“Once” won raves after a one-week workshop in Cambridge, Mass., and the plan was to move it to Broadway directly, but director Tiffany and the producers decided to give it three months at New York Theater Workshop downtown. The time was well spent. The cast has matured in the roles and coalesced into a company of storytellers comfortable in their skins.

Never is this more clear than in the song “Gold,” in which the ensemble sits in chairs facing upstage to watch a nervous “Guy” — a busker by trade — nervously singing at an open-mike night before an unfriendly crowd. Before long, they’re on their feet, captivated by his playing, affirming his talent, joining in. Through all this, though, “Girl” makes her way through the swirling musicians to stand on the bar next to “Guy.” She has been drawn to him; his music has called her.

Milioti’s performace is a revelation. “Girl” is at times quirky, at times pushy but never false. The final scene — so memorable and cinematic in the film — is played simply here, and its equally effective and heartbreaking as a range of emotions plays on her remarkable face.

Kazee, who seemed somehow not big enough to play “Starbuck” in “110 in the Shade” opposite Audra McDonald a few seasons ago, has found the role of his promising career. As “Guy,” he finds just the right mix of sadness, despair and raw musical power to draw every eye.

Bring a handkerchief and be prepared to use it frequently. “Once” is a tear-jerking charmer of a musical.

You’ll be drawn back to the Jacobs to see it again and again.

“Once” is not enough with such a remarkable piece of storytelling.

***

“Once,” Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre, 242 West 45th St., Manhattan. Opens March 18. $59.50 to $124. Day-of-show rush tickets $26.50. 212-239-6200. http://www.oncemusical.com.

Photo by Joan Marcus: “Gold,” as performed in “Once” at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre on Broadway.

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