|The utterly entrancing Steve Kazee and Cristin Milioti, stars of the new musical Once|
It is exceedingly difficult to accurately describe Once, the new musical based on the 2006 indie film of the same name. How does one describe something so groundbreaking and original that any analogy or point of reference seems woefully inadequate for the task? That indescribability proves to be the strongest of Once’s many assets; the show is a wholly new creation that forces you to reconsider exactly what a Broadway musical can be, and it is easily the strongest new work of the current season.
The plot concerns the budding romance between Guy and Girl (the two leads are never named, lending universality to their very complicated and specific emotions). Guy, an aspiring musician who works in his father’s vacuum repair shop, has all but given up on life after a particularly hard breakup with his unseen girlfriend. One day Girl whisks into his life, and after hearing him sing insists he pursue his music career so his songs can be heard by a wider audience. Over the course of one week, the pair struggles to raise the money to record Guy’s music, and finds their bond growing deeper and more complex by the hour.
In most shows, this situation would end in one of two predictable ways. Either Guy and Girl would get together and live happily ever after, or one of them would end up dead in a tragic tale of unrequited live. Once foregoes both of these options for something more subdued and ultimately more moving, portraying the reality of such situations in a way few musicals dare. The deceptively simple plot gives way to a startling emotional complexity, and will stick with you for days after the final curtain falls.
This depth is conveyed by all aspects of the production, and is especially aided by the haunting folk-influenced score by Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova (who won the Best Song Oscar for their work on the film version). Sparse instrumental interludes give way to lush, sweeping choruses overflowing with emotion. The lilting ballads are mesmerizing, delivered as they are with such sensitivity and musicianship by the stellar cast, all of whom play their own instruments. Once demonstrates how music is truly the universal language, for even when the lyrics become muffled or hard to decipher (an occurrence which happens a tad too much for this reviewer’s taste) the emotional intent of each song is abundantly clear.
The cast is uniformly excellent, offering up the best dramatic acting seen in a Broadway musical in years. As Guy, Steve Kazee brilliantly conveys all of the pent up sorrow and anguish that his character can only express through music. In a lesser actor’s hands, Guy’s self-pity and passiveness would result in an unappealing, unsympathetic lead character, and Once would be dead before it even begins. But Kazee makes the quiet and reserved nature of his character utterly charming, and completely bares his soul with each of his self-accompanied solos.
In her musical debut, Cristin Milioti is a revelation. From her first entrance, Milioti’s Girl is one of the most fully realized characters in recent musical memory. Everything about her demeanor tells you exactly what kind of woman Girl is, and the character feels real before she utters a single syllable. Direct and straightforward to a fault – “I’m always serious. I’m Czech,” she explains – Milioti gives us tantalizing glimpses of the emotional turmoil going on beneath the surface, making her endlessly fascinating to watch. Between her soft-spoken nature and Czech accent, Milioti can be difficult to understand at times, but rather than becoming frustrating this only adds to her exotic allure. Even more than costar Kazee, Milioti pours everything she has into her two big solos, and the image of her crying over the piano during the Act II ballad “The Hill” is a moment that will be permanently etched into your memory. In a season filled with sensational female performances, Milioti ranks among the very best.
Director John Tiffany must be commended for sustaining the delicate mood that makes Once unlike any other musical currently on Broadway. Although a couple of the supporting characters veer dangerously close to caricature, Tiffany ultimately succeeds in reigning in their broader impulses and keeps the show firmly grounded in naturalism. Playwright Enda Walsh has crafted a stellar libretto that reads more like a play than a musical, and yet still effortlessly makes room for the show’s many musical numbers. And the choreographed movement by Steven Hoggett, including some thrillingly theatrical transitions involving both the cast and their instruments, adds another layer of bold invention to a piece overflowing with originality.
For those with (often justified) complaints that modern day Broadway lacks innovation, Once is the answer to all of your prayers. With its fantastic score, beautifully realized performances, and sensitive but assured direction, Once is easily the best new musical of the season, and deserves to be seen by anyone who values art in their entertainment. Those who see the show should come prepared to fall under its utterly entrancing spell.