Once is the best new musical to arrive on Broadway this season. The show at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theater on West 45th Street, adapted from the popular independent film, is not a blockbuster, but rather a totally disarming entertainment, really a chamber musical, that winningly tells the simple love story of a young Dublin street busker and a gamine-like Czech emigre in such a charming manner and with such a glorious melodious score that it puts most of Broadway’s big budget shows to shame.
Like all romantic musicals of this kind, it is basically a fairy tale, a play on the “Once upon a time” theme, as its title suggests. And although its hero and heroine are known only as Guy and Girl, and meet and part in a moonstruck sort of way, the show is never mawkish. Once has a well-crafted libretto by the talented Irish playwright Enda Walsh, adapted from the film written and directed by John Carney. Its story is touchingly light-hearted, the jokes are funny, and the music and lyrics primarily from the movie by Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova are bright and engaging. One of the Hansard/Irglova’s songs, “Falling Slowly,” became a popular hit when the film was released and won an Academy Award as Best Original Song in 2007.
As Girl, Cristin Milioti is winsome, appealing and amusing. In a serendipitous Dublin street encounter she meets Guy (Steve Kazee) and is struck by his songs and singing talent. Equally talented, she takes him under her wing and in a fast week turns him into a marketable Irish folk- pop singer. His transformation by this pint-sized female Professor Higgins turns Once into a Pygmalion-like saga turned upside down. Their “slowly falling” romantic and professional journey is artfully reflected by the show’s creators in the songs they sing together and solo on the street, in the rehearsal hall and finally in the recording studio.
Kazee as Guy plays the tall and handsome Irishman, who sports a guilelessness about his talent. He has a boyish sincerity and is blessed with a nice baritone singing voice. One of the many pleasures of Once is to hear these melodious songs well sung: Nobody talks through a number here; all of the songs were composed by singers to be sung. Hansard and Irglova wrote a variety of songs for Once supplemented with traditional Irish folk tunes and Fergus O’Farrell’s “Gold.” Whether any of the other ballads in the show by Hansard and Irglova – “When Your Mind’s Made Up,” “Leave,” “Sleeping” or “Hill” – become hits with their new Broadway audiences like “Falling Slowly” remains to be seen.
All of the music in Once is played by the cast employing a plethora of traditional as well as quaint musical instruments. I, for one, don’t recall ever hearing the snare drum played on Broadway before. One of the show’s most touching numbers is done without accompaniment, a quiet chorus a cappella reprise rendition of “Gold.” Though there are no major stars in Once besides the two principals players I was particularity impressed by some of the supporting players: Anne L. Nathan as Girl’s mother, David Patrick Kelly as Guy’s Dad, Paul Whitty as the frustrated piano store owner and Andy Taylor as the musical banker.
There is almost no dancing in Once, but there is movement by the talented Steven Hoggett, who has staged the show’s musical numbers with style that keeps the cast moving in rhythmical motion. John Tiffany directs Once with a light touch neatly blending in the shows sweet sentiment and jaunty comedy. The costumes and realistic Dublin bar setting is by Bob Crowley, and the ingenious lighting by Natasha Katz allows the bar to be transformed into a variety of the city’s locales.
There is not a single number in Once that brings down the house, but the show has such a pure single-minded integrity, which I would describe as heart, and is so consistently enjoyable that it satisfies and moves audiences like no other musical this season. It is a pity that there are not more shows like it.
For thirsty playgoers, Once's onstage pub is open 20 minutes before curtain time and during intermission with a variety of beers and lagers for sale.