New York City Theater
Bernard Jacobs Theatre, Broadway
“Once,” which has just opened at Broadway’s Bernard Jacobs Theatre, is a remarkable experience. And if one happens to see the musical on St. Patrick’s Day, as this reviewer did, it takes on a special glow. Leaving the Irish tumult outdoors, as revelers in leprechaun hats and green shirts pay tribute to the day, we move inside to another kind of celebration.
From the moment we theatergoers enter the historic old theater (once known as the Royale Theatre), the magic begins. On stage is a weathered Dublin bar lit by numerous small lights. Theatergoers (upon invitation) pile on stage, mixing with the actor/musicians and sipping beers. And if there’s an Irish term for Gemutlikeit, it applies here. Every one is caught up in the moment.
Gradually viewers descend, moving back into their ticketed audience seats, as the professionals take over. The entire cast of fourteen is composed of seasoned performers, as adept at their instruments as they are secure in their characterizations. And the music? Is it Irish? Or Czech? Or, more specifically, a unique expression of two amazing composers.
To back up a moment, “Once” has a unique history. It began on the streets of Dublin with a true story of two musicians—an Irish street musician named Glen Hansard and a young Czech immigrant named Marketa Irglova. Ultimately they create wonderful music together, and their story (or a fictional version) takes on a life of its own—moving from written songs to recordings to the creation of a small film.
That film, written and directed by John Carney, and filmed for $160,000, ultimately earns over $20,000,000 worldwide. And its key song “Falling Slowly” goes on to win the 2007 Oscar for Best Original Song. Though the film is basically the Hansard-Irglova story, it will reflect artistic and fictional changes.
The next—and most recent step—is the film’s conversion into a musical play, with an initial run off-Broadway at the New York Theatre Workshop before this Broadway opening.
This production, under John Tiffany’s direction, is impeccable. Not only are these performers superb musically, but they move in ensemble, as smoothly as waves rolling over the shores. Choreographer Steven Hoggett’s movement direction is flawless. And though Steve Kazee and Cristin Milioti in the leads are charming, praise goes to the entire cast. Also included are: David Abeles (guitar, piano, melodica, harmonica), Will Connolly (electric bass, ukulele, tambourine, cajon, guitar), Elizabeth A. Davis (violin), David Patrick Kelly (mandolin), Anne L. Nathan (piano, accordion, tambourine, melodica), Lucas Papaelias (banjo, guitar, mandolin, drum set), Ripley Sobo, Andy Taylor (violin, accordion, cello, guitar, mandolin), McKayla Twiggs, Erikka Walsh (violin), Paul Whitty (guitar, ukulele, cajon, snare drum), J. Michael Zygo (guitar).
The story? Guy meets Girl, who has just heard him play on the street (or in the bar?). She is entranced by his music and appalled to hear he is giving it up. He will continue to work in his father’s vacuum cleaner repair shop. She is fiercely determined that he will continue with his music. “I’m serious,” she says. “I’m Czech.” And thus begins their collaboration.
Is this a love story? Yes and no. Guy and Gal (they do not warrant names) are seemingly in love, but she has an estranged husband in the Czech Republic and he an estranged girl friend in New York. Ultimately, their great love is not for each other, but for the music. The music is what it is all about, and we leave the theater with it all pounding in our brains, echoing in our hearts.
Mar. 17, 2012