Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - March 18, 2012
Once Book by Enda Walsha. Music and lyrics by Glen Hansard & Markéta Irglová. Based on the motion picture written and directed by John Carney. Directed by John Tiffany. Scenic and costume Design by Bob Crowley. Lighting design by Natasha Katz. Sound design by Clive Goodwin. Dialect Coach Stephen Gabis. Music Supervisor and orchestrations Martin Lowe. Movement by Steven Hoggett. Starring Steve Kazee, Cristin Milioti, David Abeles, Will Connolly, Elizabeth A. Davis, David Patrick Kelly, Anne L. Nathan, Lucas Papaelias, Ripley Sobo, Andy Taylor, McKayla Twiggs, Erikka Walsh, Paul Whitty, J. Michael Zygo.
Songwriters Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová and especially book writer Enda Walsh have sacrificed nearly all the charm and the simplicity of the movie (which was written and directed by John Carney) in favor of heavy-handed thematic declarations and a firmer dedication to hollow laughs than to centered storytelling. These qualities, which brand imbalanced musicals more than they do satisfying, integrated ones, prevent Once, which premiered at the American Repertory Theatre in Massachusetts a year ago and opened Off-Broadway at New York Theatre Workshop in December, from evincing much in the way of honest spirit or soul.
There have been some improvements since NYTW, mostly in terms of the performances. As the street singer–vacuum repairman Guy, who plunges his despair over his absent girlfriend into his cherished acoustic guitar, Steve Kazee has mellowed: He’s warmer and more consistent now in presenting a man whose heart never ends up in quite in the right place. As the Girl he meets, who convinces him to record a demo disc of his songs and chase down his girlfriend in New York, Cristin Milioti has grown more pointed and shrill, and if she’s afraid her character’s gentle exhortations in favor of music and love won’t otherwise reach the back row. And Paul Whitty has pulled back from the abyss of hyperactivity and made the music store owner Billy, who has a crush on the Girl and a role to play in the disc’s creation, something more resembling a person.
But no one, from the writers to the actors to especially director John Tiffany have given this show what it’s most needed: a return injection of the film’s humanity. Carney’s writing, coupled with grippingly raw (and partially improvised) performances by Hansard and Irglová as the Guy and Girl, resulted in a romance that more emotionally resonant for its leanness. Using exclusively diegetic songs (including “Falling Slowly,” which won an Academy Award) and just the barest slate of supporting characters, it spun the thinnest thread of a plot about a week in this couple’s lives into something that was hopeful and heartfelt in spite of the fact that there was little question their pairing would not last. (The Girl is likewise bonded: to her estranged husband and her young daughter.)
In crafting his libretto, Walsh took things in the opposite direction, and achieved the opposite effect. Building up the waifish, inspiring Girl into a woman of pronounced strength and overt muse-like qualities makes her impact on the Guy less persuasive and magical. He also inflated many of the people on the periphery, such as Billy, the music-loving bank manager (Andy Taylor), and the Girl’s mother (the game Anne L. Nathan) and room- and bandmates (Will Connolly, Elizabeth A. Davis, Lucas Papaelias), by giving them larger-than-life personalities and bits of dopey business that transform them from finely carved atmosphere into comedians in training. Except for too-brief occurrences by David Patrick Kelly as the Guy’s gentle, well-meaning father, the world and its inhabitants that surround the Guy and Girl during their almost-but-not-quite relationship are unreal and unaffecting.
Some problems should have been avoidable — Walsh compresses some events into meaninglessness (requiring, for example, a vacuum cleaner to magically appear to fill a plot hole that did not exist in the movie) — but some are endemic to the material. Most of the musical numbers are reused from the movie, but they’re not theatre songs: They’re scraps of thought and feeling that coincidentally relate to the Guy and Girl’s circumstances. At the best of moments they may be ingratiating in their clear-eyed innocence and quiet performances (the longing “Gold,” sung as the first-act finale, is particularly attractive), but they’re incapable of carrying any actual dramatic weight — which, with the now-bloated book, they must. The entire evening becomes “working around” these insufficiencies, which gives the story none of the time it needs to bloom.
This might explain why Tiffany has conceptualized the show as taking place entirely in a semicircular pub (designed, like the costumes, by Bob Crowley). Sure, it robs the show of any potential color and shifts the burden of setting most scenes onto lighting designer Natasha Katz (who carries the day with aplomb). But it provides a tacit excuse for the flimsiness of the exercise, which also includes nominal choreography (by Steven Hoggett) that sends the cast members dancing a bit and jumping a lot in pursuing the illusion of kineticism and the cast members functioning as the band (mostly on portable stringed instruments, though the occasional piano, accordion, and tambourine sneak in). Only David Abeles, who also plays the skeptical recording studio manager in Act II, seems to be enjoying himself in both assignments.
Good for him, but real fun is scarce in Once. Your best chance of finding it is to arrive early: About 25 minutes before curtain time, the aforementioned bar is literally open for business. You can stroll onstage, grab a drink, and mingle with the cast—many of whom will strum and sing their way through a collection traditional songs before the show proper begins. It has nothing directly to do with the action, but it’s a pure evocation of joy and an exploration of the power of music to heal and unite in unusual circumstances. Were Once more solid, these themes it already touches on would be woven into its narrative in place of the quotation-marks-included “entertainment” that so floods it now. It is, however, better than nothing, and as the Guy and Girl soon attempt to remind this, opportunities like these are worth embracing on the rare occasions they occur.