'Once' makes perfect transition from film to Broadway stage

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"Once" is a delightful story that features an extraordinarily talented cast. Sure, they're the usual triple threats of Broadway -- singers, dancers, actors -- but they're also skilled musicians, who make wonderful music together.

Music is at the heart of this play, which hews close to John Carney's 2006 film. The show opened earlier this week (March 19), and this early in a run people aren't always quite sure what they're walking into. But the moment you enter the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre, it's clear. It's like stepping into a Dublin pub.

And that's a grand way to spend an evening.

The unusual pre-show has the musician-actors playing instruments and bartenders pouring $13 beers. The bar is stocked with Paddy and Jameson. The worn linoleum, dim bulbs and cloudy mirrors, better for deep reflection than appearance checks, all help set the scene.

This musical manages to avoid veering off into too whimsical or too predictable territory. And it pulls off another coup; it's a quiet musical, a contained piece of art that charms its audience. 

With a book by Edna Walsh, and music and lyrics by Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova, who starred in the film, what unfolds is more a story of unrequited love than one of unbridled love. Mostly, though, it's a story of finding yourself and living true to your passions.

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Steve Kazee ("Monty Python's Spamalot" "NCIS") plays the Guy. Both leads are unnamed, though the supporting players have names. His girlfriend went to New York, and the Guy is at odds, heartbroken. He lives with his da, David Patrick Kelly ("Twelfth Night" "Gossip Girl"). They fix vacuums and moved to a small flat above the shop a year ago, when his mom died.

The Guy's convinced no one wants to hear his music, though from the moment he breaks into the first big number "Leave" it's clear that everyone wants more of his soul-searching folksy ballads.

Cristin Milioti ("The Lieutenant of Inishmore" "The Good Wife") as the Girl is terrific. She's an immigrant to Ireland, and has that cut-through-the-nonsense approach. She asks oddly personal questions of strangers: "Do you enjoy being Irish?" and can't understand why anyone lets any obstacle interfere with a goal.

Her signature line, which gets a laugh each time, is, "I'm always serious. I'm Czech."

cristin-milioti-steve-kazee-once.jpgAs with most people who are so certain about what others should do, she has her own problems. In her case, her husband is estranged and she lives in a crowded flat with her mother, daughter, and three other emigres.  

The supporting players are terrific. Lucas Papaelias plays Svec, who has learned  English from an Irish soap opera. Elizabeth A. Davis as Reza, the Girl's best friend, plays a mean fiddle. And there's a lovely, reassuring quality to Anne L. Nathan, who plays the Girl's mother.

The Girl bulldozes the Guy into making his music, cutting a demo and chasing his love to New York. All along the audience expects them to give into their feelings for each other. 

Kudos to scenic and costume designer Bob Crowley who nails the haphazard fashions of many who grew up behind the Iron Curtain. 

Perhaps the sweetest moment of the night comes at the end (this isn't a spoiler, don't worry) when the stage goes dark. New York audiences don't give ovations all that easily. As the audience rises, the cast looks genuinely surprised, which makes "Once" all the better.

Photo/Video credit: Joan Marcus
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