The phrase “natural beauty” is a sincere compliment when discussing the Broadway musical Once, currently in performances at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theater. Adapted from the sleeper hit 2007 film, this story about an Irish guitar player and a Czech pianist falling in love through music is a sweetly simple, achingly touching story that is surprisingly well-suited for the stage.
The Guy (Steve Kazee, in a solid, resonant performance) is working as a vacuum repair man in Dublin when he meets the Girl (Cristin Milioti, charming but trying a bit too hard to be quirky). Overhearing him singing, she is immediately drawn in by his music, demanding that he play more (and fix her vacuum, too). The two begin a whirlwind friendship and, before he knows what happened, the Guy is in a recording studio with a rag-tag band of misfits, cutting a demo of his music and the two are falling in love with each other from across the piano.
I saw the film when it was released in 2007 and was struck by the intimate charm of the sweet, simple story as well as the bittersweetly poignant love between the Guy and Girl. I was wary of how this charm would translate to the stage, especially on Broadway, where bigger is usually thought to be better and glitz and glamour tend to trump intimacy and honesty. But this refreshingly low-key, charming musical honors its source and, through the power of live performance, even enhances it.
Directed by John Tiffany, Once moves from the streets of Dublin to Bob Crowley’s pub-inspired set (with an actual bar onstage that audience members can patronize at intermission). Some tables and chairs easily transform the setting to a bedroom or a bank or even the beach. A scuffed floor and slightly smudged mirrors round out the slightly worn-out feel of the set, which matches the weariness of the characters, all of whom are lovelorn in one way or another.
This wistful resignation is given voice in the music of Once, and this music is the core of every character onstage. It is music that brings the Guy and Girl together and deepens their connection with every song they sing. When they first duet on the Oscar-winning song, “Falling Slowly,” stealing glances at each other before being able to maintain eye contact, the air crackles with the shy chemistry of a hesitant first kiss. Milioti and Kazee are able to honestly depict the incredible intimacy that results from creating art with someone else. It doesn’t hurt their escalating intimacy that almost all of the Guy’s songs are inspired by a recent heartbreak and the music (by Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova) is so wistful, raw and organic that hearing the songs does feel like glimpsing into the Guy’s soul.
The plot of Once is skeletal at best and relies heavily on the chemistry of the characters to maintain the audience’s investment. And with Kazee and Milioti playing the Guy and Girl, one does indeed remain invested. Tall and handsome, with sadness lingering in his eyes, Kazee embodies the self-proclaimed “broken hearted Hoover fixer upper sucker guy” with a charming insecurity. Petite and winsome, Milioti makes an endearing, rather mysterious Girl. (Her role as the Guy’s savior is only enhanced by Natasha Katz’s lighting, which gives the slender, doe-eyed Milioti an angelic glow.) Her rapid-fire delivery of playwright Enda Walsh’s lines is amusing, but her quirkiness wears thin quickly and one longs for more actual character development. Her energy is apparent, and her interest in the Guy’s music endearing, but one is curious as to why and how she became this way. I gained more insight into her character during the three minutes she sat alone at the piano, singing about her longing for the man she cannot be with, than I did from the hour-plus she had spent onstage before that scene.
Milioti and Kazee are joined onstage by a stellar supporting cast/band, all of whom play instruments as well as provide the colorful ensemble of characters in the Guy and Girl’s lives. Some of these characters are written to be too decidedly off-kilter (the piano shop owner who fancies himself a kung-fu lothario, for example) but they do provide some necessary light-hearted moments in the longingly wistful play. David Patrick Kelly is especially moving as the Guy’s Da, and Andy Taylor entertains as a bank manager who fancies himself a musician. And their musical contributions to the show’s score are priceless, especially in the Act One closing song as they begin playing and moving to the music – one can’t really call Steven Hoggett’s imaginative movement “dance”. The result is refreshingly organic and original and something I have never seen onstage before. The same could be said of almost the entire show, which is so organic and naturally delightful it could only be followed by a cold glass of whiskey – an Irish brand, of course.