Cristin Milioti and Steve Kazee in a scene from ‘Once’ at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theater (Photo by Joan Marcus)
NEW YORK – "Once" is the best new musical to arrive on Broadway this season. The show at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theater on West 45th Street, adapted from the popular independent film, is not a blockbuster, but rather totally disarming entertainment, really a chamber musical. It tells the simple love story of a young Dublin street busker and a gamine Czech emigré in such a charming manner and with such a gloriously melodious score that it puts most of Broadway’s big-budget shows to shame.
Like all romantic musicals of this kind, it is basically a fairy tale, a play on the "Once upon a time…." theme, as its title suggests. And, although its hero and heroine are known only as Guy and Girl, and meet and part in a moonstruck sort of way, the show is never mawkish.
"Once" has a libretto by the talented Irish playwright Enda Walsh, and was adapted from the film written and directed by John Carney. Its story is touchingly light-hearted; the jokes are funny and the music and lyrics, primarily from the movie by Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova, are bright and engaging. One of the Hansard/Irglova songs, "Falling Slowly," became a popular hit when the film was released and won an Academy Award as Best Original Song in 2007.
As the Girl, Cristin Milioti is winsome and appealing and amusing, too. In a serendipitous Dublin street encounter, she meets Guy (Steve Kazee) and is struck by his songs and singing talent. Equally talented, she takes him under her wing and, in a fast week, turns him into a marketable Irish folk-pop singer. His transformation by this pint-sized female Professor Higgins turns "Once" into a Pygmalion-like saga turned upside down. Their "slowly falling" romantic and professional journey is artfully reflected by the show’s creators in the songs they sing together and solo on the street, in the rehearsal hall and finally in the recording studio.
Mr. Kazee is a tall and handsome Irishman, who sports a guilelessness about his talent. He has a boyish sincerity and is blessed with a nice baritone singing voice. One of the many pleasures of "Once" is hearing these melodious songs well-sung; nobody talks through a number here. All of the songs were composed by singers to be sung. Mr. Hansard and Ms. Irglova wrote a variety of songs for "Once" and supplemented them with traditional Irish folk tunes and the popular "Gold" by Fergus O’Farrell. Whether other songs in the score – like Mr. Hansard’s "When Your Mind’s Made Up," "Leave" or "Sleeping," or Ms. Irglova’s "Hill" – become hits in their Broadway venue remains to be seen.
All of the music in "Once" is played by the cast, employing a plethora of traditional as well as quaint musical instruments. I, for one, had never encountered the snare drum played on Broadway before. Probably one of the show’s most touching numbers is a quiet a capella chorus reprise rendition of "Gold."
Though there are no major stars in "Once" besides Ms. Milioti and Mr. Kazee, I was particulary impressed by some of the supporting players: Anne L. Nathan as Girl’s mother, David Patrick Kelly as Guy’s Dad, Paul Whitty as the frustrated piano store owner and Brandon Ellis as the banker with the musical bent.
There is almost no dancing in "Once," but there is movement by Steven Hoggett, who has staged the show’s musical numbers in a style that keeps the cast in rhythmical motion. John Tiffany has directed "Once" with a light touch, neatly blending in the show’s sweet sentiment and jaunty comedy. The costumes and realistic Dublin bar setting are by Bob Crowley, and the ingenious lighting by Natasha Katz allows the bar to be transformed into a variety of the city’s locales.
There is not a single number in "Once" that brings down the house; but the show has such a pure, single-minded integrity, which I would describe as heart, and is so consistently enjoyable that it satisfies and moves audiences like no other musical this season. It is a pity that there are not more shows like it.
For thirsty playgoers, the "Once" on-stage pub opens 20 minutes before curtain time and during intermission with beers and lagers for sale. Note: "Once" does have adult language, though no more so than a PG-13 movie.
Critic Bernard Carragher lives in New York and covers the arts and entertainment.