‘Once” She Done Him Right
By: Isa Goldberg/Chief Theater Critic
“Old Martin” meets broken down Hoover. That in a nutshell, is the story of “Once.” The “Old Martin” is the cute Irish Guy’s (Steve Kazee’s) guitar; Guy also works at his father’s shop repairing vacuum cleaners. That is just the fix the Girl (Cristin Milioti) with the broken down Hoover has been longing for.
We learn quickly through song, “Broken Hearted Hoover Fixer Sucker Guy,” that the anticipated romance will get served with the harrowing twists and turns of romance. “Ten years ago I fell in love with an Irish girl.” Guy sings, “She took my heart. But she went and screwed some guy that she knew.” Indeed, we discover that the Girl he’s just met has some complicated romantic ties, too.
The tale, told mostly in tender folk songs, expresses the poignancy in overcoming one’s crippling fears, and living life it to its fullest. And that is what the Girl who loves the Guy shows him how to do in the most selfless way, by helping him leave the little boy’s bedroom where he still lives above the vacuum repair shop that his father owns, to reunite with the woman he still loves now in far away New York.
Set in an Irish pub (designed by Bob Crowley), the production is rustic with the musicians seated on stage, and a few props – pianos, vacuum cleaners, chairs – thrown around for scene changes. The choreography (by Steven Hoggett), which looks unrehearsed, is much like Kaylee, the popular Irish social dance. And some of its most prominent practicioners here are the Girl’s Czech friends, immigrants eager to assimilate. To that end, there are occasional references to the tiny island’s grand history, “Yeats, Swift, Wilde, Beckett, Joyce, Van Morrison, Enya, the fantastic people who gave the world River Dance!” The Girl says, calling on a rich past.
For “Once” the Broadway musical is in fact better than the movie. Shot in Dublin on a shoestring budget, with the composers Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova, playing the two lead roles, its theme song “Falling Slowly” won the 2007 Academy Award for Best Original Song and the soundtrack received a Grammy nomination. But the movie gets lost in the characters’ emotions, while the stage adaptation by Obie Award-winning Irish playwright, Enda Walsh, takes a more incisive look at their feelings. It is truly a soul-searching love story that plays intimately, even in a large Broadway house.
Still, the songs and the music have been recreated for the stage almost exactly as they were in the movie. The result is a unique (for its time) musical, with lush orchestration (by Martin Lowe) from a handful of strings, accordion, guitars, piano and drums. And the quality of the sound is true to the genre of folk music – neither pumped up nor over-miked. There is no wall of sound here to overwhelm you as there is in most Broadway musicals these days.
And the two actors in the Broadway production are adorable, especially Cristin Milioti, who is angelic as the Girl, and a fine pianist, even when playing the music of “dead romantic,” Felix Mendelssohn. And Steve Kazee’s sweet, reticent sensibility is similarly endearing.
Straying far from the mainstream of musical theater land, hummable “Once” provides some sweet inspiration.
“Once” is at the Bernard B Jacobs Theatre, 242 West 45th Street. Performances are Tuesdays at 7pm, Wednesdays through Saturdays at 8pm with matinees on Wednesdays and Saturdays at 2pm, and Sundays at 3pm. For tickets call 212-289-6200, visit Telecharge.com or go to the box office.
Photography: Joan Marcus