“Once” at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre in New York City
by Zander Opper
“Once,” the newly awarded Tony-winning Best Musical of this past season, is a rich tapestry of a show that is actually a rarity on Broadway—a musical that manages to improve greatly on its source material. That source material is the popular 2006 Irish movie of the same name, which has a fervent following and won the Oscar for Best Song for its gorgeous theme, “Falling Slowly.” Like the film, the musical “Once” follows the story of a guy and a girl in Dublin who develop a sort of “romance” in which they make beautiful music together. However, while the film used actual locations throughout Dublin to tell its story, all of the musical’s action takes place on a basic unit set of an Irish pub (beautifully designed by Bob Crowley).
It is here that “Once” truly demonstrates its magic: director John Tiffany uses changes in actors, set pieces and lighting to represent the various locales in the musical and the cast actually doubles as the show’s “orchestra,” with everyone playing a different instrument onstage. Consequently, the musical can flow smoothly from a music shop to a recording studio to a street corner, just through movement, music, and the audience’s imagination. Adding to this, the actors are pretty much ideal (especially the two leads, Steve Kazee and Cristin Milioti) and, while the music is decidedly unlike anything else on Broadway (most of the songs have been retained from the film and are decidedly on the folksy side), it all works beautifully. Diehard show fans may scoff at the lack of traditional “Broadway” numbers, but everyone else should be mesmerized.
One of the greatest achievements of “Once” is that, while the story is basically the same as the film version, the musical of “Once” is not constrained by the film and actually exists as a separate and distinctly theatrical entity. As mentioned, all the actors play instruments in addition to playing characters and they stay in the periphery of the setting when not part of the specific scene taking place onstage. Instead of feeling like a conceit, the use of actors playing instruments flows naturally from the storyline and some of the most breathtaking moments of the show are in the beautifully staged scene changes, with the supporting performers providing musical accompaniment before disappearing back into the periphery. And one of the most amazing moments in the show is the Act I finale song (called “Gold” and brilliantly performed by Steve Kazee), which grows slowly in power as, one by one, the actor/musicians join Kazee in the number until the whole stage is alive with music and strikingly choreographed movement, with the overall effect being nearly overwhelming.
Before going any further, a quick word must be said about Steve Kazee and Cristin Milioti as the guy and the girl at the center of the story. They play off each other beautifully and, as in the film, one longs for the two to further their relationship beyond simply making music together; these are two lonely souls who need each other and share a whirlwind “romance” of sorts over a brief period of five days. Although “Once” rarely makes a misstep, I should mention that during the last half hour or so, some of the dialogue gets a little too didactic about the state of their relationship—what was simply left unsaid in the film is, at times, hammered out a bit too strongly in the musical.
However, in the grand scheme of things, this flaw hardly matters. What makes “Once” such a beautiful and powerful show is all in the creation of music and the performing of it by this superb cast. Indeed, when this show sings, it is truly glorious. And, as a final note, try to get to “Once” early, for audience members are allowed to go onstage to buy drinks and intermingle (briefly) with the performers before the show. From that perspective, one can experience the energy of these musicians up close and it can make one appreciate their accomplishments during the show even more. For tickets, call Telecharge at 212-239-6200 or go to OnceMusical.com.