Off-Broadway Theater Review
November 26, 2011
Once, the theatrical adaptation of the movie by the same name that we saw in previews at the NY Theatre Workshop is the kind of engaging, exhilarating theater experience that leaves you hoping it won’t end. The kind of transformational experience that causes stranger filing out to actually talk to each other and smile. Even after it was over we found ourselves hanging around outside the theater to savor the experience for a few more moments.
Once is on the surface a simple story. Guy meets Girl (as they are referred to – somehow they manage to not be called by name throughout) and they fall for each other… but they are both carrying the baggage of previous troubled entanglements and the plot, such as it is, thickens. In this case Guy is an Irish singer-songwriter/struggling part-time street musician, a.k.a. busker (played by Steve Kazee), who has a day job working for his dad repairing Hoover vacuum cleaners. Girl, a young Czech immigrant (played by Cristin Milioti), is a formally trained musician who just so happens to have a vacuum that won’t suck. She recognizes his talent and convinces him to continue to pursue a musical path and goes on to collaborate and produce an album with him.
What makes Once such a gem is not the complexity of the story or the level of its detail but how masterfully it is presented. Through a uniquely lyrical, non-traditional score that will inevitably and justifiably be compared with Spring Awakening, the characters come alive emotionally. Seamless and subtle choreography provide depth to the canvas.
Ironically, under the heading of Life Imitates Art, the story is semi-autobiographical. Once is based on the 2007 indie movie sensation starring Glen Hansard (The Commitments) and Markéta Irglová, both of whom also collaborated to write the compellingly hypnotic score. The movie was shot on the unbelievably shoe string budget of $150,000 in just several weeks and under the intensity of the process a romance between them was born. Unlike the translation of Billy Elliot from film to stage (see Billy Elliot review), this theater adaptation is as good or better than the movie.
The stage set includes an Irish pub and audience members are encouraged to walk up and order a drink at the bar before the show starts. The pub setting is enhanced by musicians milling about, chatting and trading traditional Irish and Eastern European songs in a kind of informal jam session. Gradually their performance becomes more of a coordinated effort and the start of the show kind of sneaks up on you. It turns out that each of these talented musicians is an equally gifted actor who plays one or more roles. Broadway has experimented with actors as musicians – John Doyle’s productions of Sondheim’s Company and Sweeney Todd come to mind. In both cases the effect was successful but it was clear that they were actors who played music to a greater or lesser degree. In Once, it was difficult to make the distinction.
Once is playing at the New York Theatre Workshop, the original home to Rent before it began its long run on Broadway. It has been extended through mid-January and it was recently announced that this production will follow a similar path uptown. We’ve already bought tickets to see it again because Once is not enough.