Monday, March 19, 2012


There is a familiar kind of empathy and selfish pleasure in discovering an independent film. The thrill of being the person who knew "it" before "it" was popular pervades so many facets of our lives. That corner foodie haunt that goes on to earn a Michelin star, the high school band that makes the Pitchfork Top 100, the beloved comic who spent their first two decades as a resigned opening act for Carrot Top - Microcosms of the American Dream, held onto with an unrelenting grip by those who knew them when.

Despite the critical and relative box office success of Once, the Irish indie-musical film, ardent fans will still speak of it in a loving cadence reserved for the closest of friends and dearest of family members - the protective voice of a parent as their child begins to explore the world without them.

I have yet to see Once the film, and therefore cannot reassure the movie's purists that the Broadway musical, which began a short few months ago at New York Theatre Workshop and opened tonight at the Bernard Jacobs Theatre, has harnessed the film's bohemian essence nor can I satisfy Once haters by revealing that "Falling Slowly," the film's Academy Award winning best song, has been reconceived as an exhilarating high wire flying sequence. (It hasn't.)

I can only speak to what is happening onstage at the Jacobs, which is earnest, but overly precious sap with an unhealthy amount of figurative pats on the back. A musical not without its merits, Once onstage plays as manipulative entertainment that is only somewhat entertaining, and overly long and drawn out. The larger, grander, better ideas, beliefs, and commentaries are there, but incredibly difficult to spot among the incessant efforts to please.

And effortful these efforts are. Before any words are sung or a note music is played, the audience is wordlessly beckoned onto the stage for casual pre-show drinks on Bob Crowleys checkerboard pub set. Awkwardly situated in a sort of spontaneous ellipse, the onlookers are treated to a warm-up music act by the cast. Implemented, I imagine, to tear down the barrier between audience and performer; it serves only as cuddly gimmickry.

The pre-show leads into a serviceable story of a struggling Irish musician and a kitschy woman who encourages him to take his aural talent further – helping him to regain his former love who emigrated to the United States. On their five-day journey, they encounter run-of-the-mill eccentric characters, who are ultimately just as lovable as they are. Ideally Once is a play about music, passion, and humanitys primal connection to the two, but that underlying message takes second fiddle to the will they? wont they? love story, lame predictable humor, and the rags to riches plot line.

The score by the films stars Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova carries over in its entirety from the film. The music, whose prevailing quietness is extremely well suited for the private subtlety of film and the fictitious distancing of headphones, fails to move the stage story in way that is compelling, settling instead for appreciative half-grins and a wash of emotion-laden tonal pseudo-commentary.

The songs contribute as one of two devices: either as concerts-within-a-musical or as disconnected windows into a character's emotional state. Now, that is structurally not a-typical. You can observe music utilized similarly in Jersey Boys or Hairspray, but the truly very pretty songs of Once all fall slowly into a wash of melancholic romanticizing. Their similarities deliver a crushing blow to a show whose material just cannot fill a Broadway house. I was seated in the back row of the balcony, as respectable a seat as any other, and my mind drifted off more than once.

Once is about music, and the music is appropriately lovely. The soundtrack and cast recording hold well-worn spots on my iPod, and contain marvelous individual melodic morsels like Falling Story and When Your Minds Made Up - but as a cohesive score with a dramatic thru-line, it doesn't adequately fit the bill.

Also, despite the scores beauty, occasional lushness, and tentative emotional power, an annoyance comes from the scripts repeatedly calling attention to its utter greatness. Each time our swarthy Irish Guy sings one of his folks hits, a questionable nay saying family member or businessman stands flabbergasted by the majesty of what just befell his ears. It's an oddly pompous and self-serving device that further cajoles the audience into passive agreement with everything their served.

Strongly supporting the thin material is an extremely capable company of actor-musicians, most of whom play a string instrument. A lovely aspect of Once is the amassment of lush string sounds, too often absent from modern pit orchestras, and the actors blend together with the same otherworldly quality of a string quartet.

As Guy, Steve Kazee leads the cast with a softened masculinity and warmth of spirit. His voice echoes his personality and goes easy on the ears. The persistent Girl he falls in love with is played with little dynamism by Cristin Milioti who chooses to define her character by one or two annoying played up quirks. She is watchable when she opts for simplicity, but such choices are infrequent.

The ensemble, creating a ragtag team of textually uneven characters, brings a been around the block' pathos to even the youngest of roles. Their inherent qualities as people, not characters or actors, but people, are the only aspect of the production that hardens the world - shows that there are in fact consequences to their actions and lurking dangers in the distance. Danger is certainly nowhere to be found in playwright Enda Walsh's fluffy book, (adapted from John Carneys screenplay) which keeps the story much too light.

The play's direction by John Tiffany is stunning in both the positive and negative connotations of the word. With brilliantly fluid transitions incorporating music, the body, and a truthful sexuality, scenes are woven together deftly and energetically. The movement by Steven Hoggett is delightful and extraordinarily well blended. However once the scenes get going, they drag on and on, involving only two people internalizing on a large open stage. All the while, Walshs book gushes sucrose so liberally that I sat in hopeless fear of my familys history of Diabetes. There is far too much corny humor and nowhere near enough legitimate engaging drama to satisfy a two and a half hour show.

In its Broadway incarnation, Once is just too long and too frivolous to invest its audience in the plight of its characters for more than a fleeting moment. Wisely, the play ends on that Academy Award winning song, "Falling Slowly," and at the blackout, the audience erupts in rapturous applause, celebrating the voluptuous musicality of the preceding two minutes, and quickly forgetting the other one hundred twenty eight.-Johnny Oleksinski

'Once' runs at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre on Broadway.