Sunday, March 11, 2012

theatre review ONCE, Broadway, March 6

The new musical Once is now in previews on Broadway after a successful Off Broadway run this past Winter.   It is based on the Oscar winning movie of the same name that tells the story of a guy and a girl in modern Dublin.  He is Irish, she is Czech.  They meet somewhat unexpectedly on the street, where he is performing and over the course of about a week find a connection to each other that brings out feelings in them that they've each long forgotten.  They are both somewhat accomplished, though not professional, musicians and the music they make together and individually adds a dimension to the story unlike any musical that I can think of.  It officially opens this coming Sunday.

The show features music by Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova who starred in the film, including all of the original songs from the movie as well as some new ones the two have written.  It is a story of two people from different worlds who are both somewhat lost in their lives.  The characters are simply called Guy and Girl.  The Guy's girlfriend moved away to New York, leaving him heartbroken, lost and feeling worthless.  He lives with his father and repairs vacuum cleaners in his father's shop but it is really only when he sings and plays his original songs that he becomes alive.  The Girl lives with her mother, her daughter and some fellow Czechoslovakians and once she meets the Guy and hears a rough demo tape of some of his original songs, she tells him that he needs to make a professional demo recording and that she will help him make that happen.   They are both somewhat muses for each other and some of the most intimate and touching moments are when they are singing solo songs that we assume is about the other person.

While the plot of the musical basically follows the movie, with a couple of slight changes, the musical actually provides a better platform to showcase the talents of the entire cast, as everyone in the show sings, plays various instruments and appears as the various supporting characters.  While the actors in the movie did the same, having the actors in the musical perform and play their instruments live in front of you really allows everyone to shine and makes the show achieve a certain level of realism rarely seen.  And unlike the recent John Doyle directed musicals where the actors were also the musicians, the fact that in this show the characters in the show are all musicians, having the actors play instruments seems only natural.

Christin Milioti and Steve Kazee

The musical, like the movie, is unlike a lot of other shows and movies out there.  It definitely is a show that not everyone is going to love as not much really happens and the score is extremely ballad heavy. It also has a somewhat abrupt beginning, more on that later, and after the first song, the next 10 or 15 minutes of the show are just the two lead characters talking.

Basically, we get to know the two main characters as they get to know each other, but the music that the two of them make carries you to a place of beauty with a certain charm and sweetness to it.   The Oscar winning song "Falling Slowly" from the film, is featured prominently and the title of that song pretty much describes how I felt about the show as I slowly fell in love with the show and the two leads and found myself completely drawn to the passion they have for each other and to the music they create.

Steve Kazee and Christin Milioti are the main couple and I can't imagine both of them not getting Tony nominations for their work.  While Milioti gets some of the best dialogue in the show it is Kazee who really shines on the majority of the songs.  His voice has the right shades of purity and roughness to get every nuance out of the songs and he has the perfect lost boy look to him that allows Milioti and the audience to fall in love with him while wanting to help him find his way.  He also appears to be a very gifted guitarist.  Milioti has a natural gift for comedy which comes in handy in this show.   She has a charming personality and we can easily see why Kazee falls for her and she plays one mean piano.

Two downsides, Kazee is much better looking than Hansard and since he also comes across as a really nice guy it slightly begs the audience to wander why someone as charming, nice and attractive as him would have his girlfriend leave him.  Also, Milioti's Czech accent is really good but it is also really thick and there were numerous times that you had to strain to catch what she was saying.   I'm hoping that was just a sound design issue since it is in a much larger theatre on Broadway then it was Off Broadway and that they can fix that issue before it officially opens.  It wasn't a major distraction just a minor one.

The set for the show by Bob Crowley is a large run down bar that only uses lighting and minimal other set pieces to portray the various locations in the show.  This minimalistic approach didn't always work but it did allow the characters at the center to be the focus of the piece instead of relying on large moving set pieces to possibly take your attention away from the simple love story that the show is about.  I did really like the use of mirrors of various shapes and sizes all along the walls of the bars as it added another dimension to the simplistic set and provided an interesting image when the stage lights would hit them.

Enda Walsh has written the book, and while some of the lines for Milioti might appear very cliched, Milioti's delivery of them in her thick Czech accent somehow makes them seem more realistic then they are if they were said by someone else in the cast.   I liked how when the Czech characters spoke their native language they spoke in English with the Czech translation in subtitles above the set.   There are a few times when the  Irish characters aren't meant to understand what the Czech ones are saying, and in presenting the language this way it allowed the audience to fully understand what was going on without having to read subtitles.

Director John Tiffany does a good job in combining the simple plot elements with the fact that his entire cast is also his orchestra.  He has created some very memorable stage images as well.  The entire cast is almost always on stage, with the ensemble sitting in chairs on the sides of the "bar" that allows them to perform the music accompaniment.   I'm not sure if we were to assume that they were supposed to be serving as somewhat of a "Greek chorus" or what since they never commented on the action but they were always watching what was happening.   Choreography or "Movement" as they are calling it, is by Steven Hoggett and while some of the ways the ensemble was incorporated was very effective, especially during the song "Gold," there were also a few times when it was too stylized that it was almost on the point of being laughable.  But there were only one or two of those moments.

About the abrupt start to the show I mentioned above: make sure you arrive to the theatre early as the ensemble cast provides about 20 minutes of musical before the show.  While most of them have small roles in the show, this "pre-show" gives them a chance to shine on solo vocals as well as to show off their individual musical abilities on the various instruments they play.  While this pre-show is an extremely effective way to warm the audience up, Kazee starts to sing the first song of the show while the house lights are still up, so many people in the audience are still getting settled in their seats while he sings the first song of the show, thinking that this is still part of the pre-show.  Before this song, David Patrick Kelly, who plays Kazee's father in the show, sings a really nice song and it would seem more effective if at the end of that song the house lights slowly dimmed so when Kazee comes on the stage the audience would know the "show" was starting and would settle down some.   One nice thing about the pre-show, the bar on stage also serves drinks to the audience before the show and at intermission.  So, not only can you get a drink on the actual stage but you can hang out on it while the ensemble is performing the pre-show songs.

Once is really a magical musical, unlike anything out there and one that I think will really connect with many people.  With two extremely talented actors in the leads, an amazingly gifted ensemble cast and simple, yet effective set, direction and choreography, Once is one musical I don't think you should miss.  The cast recording, which comes out this week, is one of the best I've heard in a long time with clear, crisp vocals and some of the most lush arrangements, all in line with what is actually heard in the theatre.  

Official Show Site

A montage from the show:

No comments:

Post a Comment