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A CurtainUp Review

"Take this sinking boat and point it home
We've still got time
Raise your hopeful voice you have a choice"
— lyric from Oscar and Grammy award winning song "Falling Slowly" which sings so touchingly about the pain of falling down, but also being able to help someone to get back up.
Steve Kazee (Guy) & Cristin Milioti (Girl)
I loved Once, the 2007 Irish Indie movie. I loved the music with its specific musical taste transcending emotional resonance. I loved how the small-scale filming gave it an engaging hidden camera documentary flavor. The cast of non-professional actors and the way the musical numbers were staged on the street, in a grungy music shop and dingy apartments went a long way toward enhancing the film's greatest asset besides the music: a beguiling naturalness which evoked a sense of being right there with its likeable and very human characters.

Watching my DVD in anticipation of seeing the 85 minute film expanded into a 2 hour and 20 minute musical adaptation, I had a queasy feeling that the simple charms would get lost in an over-amplified score and mass appeal pandering expanded book. After all, there are plenty of clunky screen-to-stage musicals to abet such concerns.

The musical is premiering at the intimate New York Theatre Workshop, the incubator for Rent and home to many off-beat shows. The design team's Tony Award winning credentials clearly signal that the 200-seat start-up location was a smart marketing move to implement the producers' plans for a Broadway transfer. This raised added concerns that the New York Theatre Workshop production might end up undergoing heavy miking and more Broadway style bells and whistles

And sooo. . . to cut to the chase. The current stage adaptation retains the film's charm and, wonder of wonders, it's a completely original work of art. The little movie with the legs to turn a $150,000 investment into a $20 million grossing worldwide hit has been transformed into a musical that retains its Indie feel (a terrific cast but none with big box office magnetism) but has deepened and enriched the story courtesy of Enda Walsh's new script.

With its single set — a bar (brilliantly detailed by Bob Crowley (who's also responsible for the right on the mark costumes) — the show is actually more the theatrical equivalent of Indie than the movie which showed the guitar playing Guy and the piano playing Czech immigrant Girl roaming all over Dublin and featured a real studio setting for the recording session that was the real happy ending to their wistful week-long romance.

If I had to sum up Once, the musical in a tweet: It's a sweet fable, a week long journey of emotional growth for its two leads as well as the story's peripheral characters. And it does so with music that hits all the right notes.

Playwright Enda Walsh's libretto enriches and enhances the characters of the two leads (Steve Kazee and Cristin Milioti) as well as making the effect of their journey more important to the other characters. The musical also has powerful assets in John Tffany's direction and Steven Hoggett's movement choreography (the power of their work was previously demonstrated in another unique theatrical enterprise, Black Watch.

Walsh's book with it's more fully developed themes calls for strong acting as well as musical skills. Steve Kazee as the dejected in love and career musician and Christin Milioti as his life-changing good fairy who has her own problems, are excellent choices to replace songwriters, Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova (Hansard and Irglova did very well playing Guy and Girl on screen but they have opted to stick to their musical careers).

The eleven other performers all display remarkable versatility. They make the most of the musical's expanded roles for Guy's father, the music shop proprietor, Girl's mother and upstairs neighbors. They're also terrific as the the accompanying instrumentalists, singers and executing Hoggett's exciting dance numbers (these movements are vibrant as any more typical show stopping dance numbers). The combination of actors multitasking as musicians, singers and dancers is completely original and much more organic than John Doyle's actor-musician productions.

As the stage musical's book builds up the film characters' roles and yet ends up telling the same heartwarming story, so the decision to confine the entire show to a Dublin bar, rather than trying to recreate the cinematic wanderings to different locales with fancy props and projections, is not just practical but what makes this a unique theatrical work. Crowley's bar works beautifully as a backdrop for simply shifting locations by having the always present instrument playing characters drag some tables and chairs, Girl's vacuum cleaner and piano on and off stage as needed.

Natasha Katz's lighting further defines what's happening and where. There's a particularly imaginative recreation of a scene in the movie where Guy and Girl escape on a motorbike trip to the outskirts of the city that here simply has them climb to the top of the bar, turning it into an evocative promontory overlooking the city.

At almost two and a half hours, Once could use a once-over to trim it by at least ten minutes and Girl's words of wisdom could be toned down a bit. But the current setup is large enough not to get lost in a Broadway house.

The single word title was intended as a reference to the many talented artists who put off their career by saying "once" they get this and that sorted out, but never succeed because they've put it off too long. It's a meaning the producers may be right to have taken to heart by not to putting of their dream of Once on Broadway and committing to its transfer to the Bernard Jacobs Theater immediately after the already extended NYTW run.

With just a few tiny nips and tucks, and restraining the urge to make this big little show bigger, this is one screen-to-stage musical that may well make that leap to a larger and more expensive home successfully. I for one liked the current Once well enough to see it twice.

To hear the show's big hit, "Falling Slowly," here's a link to a You Tube sample: If you've never seen the film, you can get the DVD at Amazon for $6.50 -- You can also buy a DVD of the film for less than $10 at Amazon Once DVD

Once — based on the motion picture of the same name written and directed by John Carney
Directed by John Tiffany
Book by Enda Walsh
Music and lyrics by Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova
Movement by Steven Hoggett
Cast: David Abeles (Eamon), Claire Candela (Ivona), Will Connolly (Andrej), Elizabeth A. Davis (Reza), Steve Kazee (Guy), David Patrick Kelly (Da), Cristin Milioti (Girl), Anne L. Nathan (Baruska), Lucas Papaelias (Svec), Andy Taylor (Bank Manager), Erikka Walsh (Ex-Girlfriend), Paul Whitty (Billy) and J. Michael Zygo (Emcee).
Music supervisor/orchestrations: Martin Lowe
Sets and costumes: Bob Crowley
Lighting: Natasha Katz
Sound: Clive Goodwin
Dialect coach: Stephen Gabis
Stage Manager: Beth Marie Glorioso
Running time: 2 hours 25 minutes
New York Theater Workshop, 79 East Fourth Street, East Village; (212) 279-4200
From 11/15/11; opening 12/08/11; closing 1/15/12. (then transferring to the Bernard Jacobs Theater on Broadway
Tuesdays and Wednesdays, 7:00pm .Thursdays and Fridays, 8:00pm; Saturday, 3pm, 8pm.Sunday, 2 pm, 7pm
Tickets, $50-$75. Reviewed by Elyse Sommer December 15th
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