The New York Theatre Workshop in the East Village is known for its eclectic taste. Recently it housed the one – man play An Iliad by Dennis O’Hare.In the fall of 2010 I witnessed a very bizarre take on Lillian Hellman’s The Little Foxes there, and recently a musical based on the low budget Irish film “Once” premiered there too.
The musical has a book by Enda Walsh and a score by Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova, and has been very imaginatively staged by John Tiffany, with a big assist on stage movement by Steven Hoggett. These two gifted artists staged the immensely effective Black Watch and here they have once again come up with innovative ways to tell a familiar story of intense but unrequited love. And they have just received eleven Tony nominations for their efforts, more than any other show in town.
The production is first rate. Set in a congenial bar in Dublin, it concerns a Guy and a Girl (so named in the program) who meet by chance and spend the evening falling slowly in love. There are a dozen other barflies who play everyone else needed in this sweet tale, which is complicated by the fact that the Guy has recently split with his lady friend, and the Girl is married, with a six year old child. All actors play instruments as well, and it’s the songs that project the story more effectively than does the book.
The bar setting splits and moves easily so that chairs and tables can place actors in a new scene, with lighting cleanly and clearly isolating them from the rest of the company, seated on the periphery, often with instruments ready to supply background music. It’s all good theatre.
The leads are played by the two actors who created them downtown — Steve Kazee (he played Starbuck in 110 In the Shade opposite Audra McDonald) and Cristin Milioti (Alexandra in the Little Foxes mentioned above) recreate their off-Broadway characterizations now that Once is at the Jacobs Theatre on Broadway. They are both richly effective and appealing; he, as the lost loser who’s given up hope after splitting with his lady friend and getting nowhere with his music, she, as the hyper animated positive force who is separated from her husband and not very happy as a single Mom.
In their very first meeting in the bar, she relentlessly pursues him, sensing something in him that needs the kind of help she can offer. It doesn’t take long for the Guy to feel attracted to her, and she to him, but she is the wiser of the two, and she puts him off, hoping to keep their friendship just that. She loves his music, and begins to work with him using lyrics of her own, as he’s become blocked and can’t come up with them himself.
The cult film of the same name, on which the musical is based, had the composers playing roles and singing their own songs. Here a company of fourteen helps tell the story while comprising the orchestra, using guitars, a banjo, an accordion, a ukelele, a cello, a tamborine, an electric bass, a snare drum, a mandolin, a piano and a violin.
One should not have to listen to the cd of the score, or read the published version of the script to confirm that the material is excellent. But I’m going to do that because the only mistake I could find in the direction was Mr. Tiffany’s permitting Ms. Milioti, who is perfection in every other way, to paste on an almost indecipherable Irish/Czech accent. There is much humor in the script, as evidenced by the half a house that laughed frequently at her dialogue and at the lyrics she sang. The other half, the half that included me, was more inclined to whisper, and sometimes to shout: “What did she say?!” And Mr. Kazee, attractive, appealing, with a fine voice and a quiet charm that made us care about the Guy, was playing most of his book scenes at an energy level that was more suitable for a TV version, or perhaps the much smaller NY Theatre Workshop, where the audience was almost in his lap.
Once is a refreshing and welcome addition to the 2011-12 New York season. One of the effects of the production was the use of titles above the stage in the Czech language for those out front whose native tongue was Czech. I’d like to have seen English titles under Ms. Milioti’s dialogue, and in fact there was one such time when the sign read “I love you” after she’d said those three little words to the Guy – in her native tongue. But I’d make an effort to see this lovely small musical, and pray that you are in the half of the audience that gets the meaning of every line and each lyric.
Once is onstage at Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre, 242 West 45th St. New York, NY 10036.
Details and tickets
Richard Seff, who numbers among his many accomplishments, careers as Broadway performer, agent, writer, and librettist, has written the book for Shine! The Horatio Alger Musical!, which debuted at the 2010 New York Musical Theatre Festival. He is also author of Supporting Player: My Life Upon the Wicked Stage, celebrating his lifetime on stage and behind the scenes, available through online booksellers, including Amazon.com. Read more at RichardSeff.com
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