Broadway review: 'Once'

In this theater image released by Boneau/Bryan-Brown, Steve Kazee, right, and Cristin Milioti are shown in a scene from "Once," in New York. (AP Photo/Boneau/Bryan-Brown, Joan Marcus)
In this theater image released by Boneau/Bryan-Brown, Steve Kazee, right, and Cristin Milioti are shown in a scene from "Once," in New York. (AP Photo/Boneau/Bryan-Brown, Joan Marcus) (AP)
Posted: March 18, 2012

How many songs with the same plaintive, repeating chords and the same melancholy lyrics about your same lovelorn self can you string together to make a Broadway musical?

The answer is 14. (Plus reprises.) Taken one at a time, the 14 songs of the new musical Once, which opened Sunday night, work well enough on their own. Stitched together to create a musical, though, they severely test your quotient for plaintiveness - at what point does wearing a heart on your sleeve turn from a metaphor into an actual bloody mess?

For me, it was toward the end of the first half, when Guy and Girl, as they are known in the show, go to a bank in Dublin for a loan. They need the money to rent a recording studio so they can lay down a disc of Guy's songs, which Girl has convinced him are special. These songs, all of them, speak of love, longing, loss, languor and letdown - let's call them the five lyrical "L"s of Once, with a lugubrious musical mood to match. (Tip: If you end these songs with an extended "no, no no-o-oh," "woe, woe wo-o-oh," or "oh, oh oh-o-h" you are already on your way to the stage.)

So there they are, Guy and Girl at the bank, cajoling a loan officer into listening to a composition before he might attempt to toss them out with the ample weight of capitalistic arrogance. Guy comes forth with "Say It to Me Now," a searching song about silences and gaps and probable disappointment and . . . well, you know. The loan officer is, of course, both melted and astounded by it.

"Do you have many more like that?" he asks.

And that is precisely the problem with Once: He does. I would be lying not to say that I was thoroughly charmed by the cast -- led by an achingly vulnerable Steve Kazee as Guy, the Dubliner ready to give up on music until he meets a Czech immigrant, Girl, the delightful and stalwart Cherry Hill native Cristin Milioti. The rest of the actors are also the show's orchestra and chorus - everyone plays at least one instrument and all are ace musicians and actors.

And yes, Bob Crowley's large bar set uses a mirror to fine effect, Clive Goodwin's sound design makes this one of the clearest musicals on Broadway in some time, and John Tiffany's direction provides plenty of theatricality. Tiffany keeps the whole affair moving, even at an hour more than the 85-minute film of the story in 2008, also called Once.

Irish playwright Enda Walsh is impressive, too, for his book that puts meat around the fatuous songs; his script about two strangers who make instant beautiful music together but can't collaborate on love even manages to use sentimentality to the story's advantage.

But oh, that score - it's by Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová. Like the two main characters of Once, he is Irish and she, Czech, and together they're called The Swell Season for the title of their first album.

They won the original-song Oscar in 2007 for "Falling Slowly," in the film and now, a key song in the stage musical. In it, yet another browbeaten lyric for its two main characters commands: "Take this sinking boat and point it home -- you've still got time." Not a bad suggestion for the audience, either.


Contact Howard Shapiro at 215-854-5727, hshapiro@phillynews.com, or #philastage on Twitter. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/howardshapiro. Hear his reviews at the Classical Network, www.wwfm.org.

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Once is at the Jacobs Theatre, 242 W. 45th St., New York.

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