The longer you attend theatre, the more difficult it becomes to find that next show which really changes you in some way. That's not to say there aren't shows you like or love, even. But ever so rarely does a show come along that leaves you somehow better and more alive than you were before taking your seat. In (gulp) just under 30 years since I attended my first Broadway show, it had happened exactly 5 times for me. That is until last Saturday afternoon, when that elusive, straight-to-my-soul thrill of witnessing true brilliance on the stage occurred for a 6th time, when the audience leaped in unison to its feet in appreciation for what the company had just done for us. It was not one of those typical standing ovations that greet every Broadway show these days. It was a magical communion between human beings caught up in the euphoria that truly beautiful art brings out in people. There was, for those brief moments, no line between artist and patron. We were one.
Of course, I had read some of the hype that went along with this transfer from Off-Broadway. I've been reading such things with relative frequency lately and the street is littered with the memories of those shows that couldn't stand the move. With Once, I hope that mold has been broken, and the show becomes the hit that it deserves to be.
Not since next to normal has a show been so lean, so "fat free," where every word, every lyric has import. And not since Spring Awakening has a score been so musically challenging both to the ear and to the brain. Each word of Edna Walsh's heartfelt, genuine book complements the blissfully poetic, joyful and heartbreaking lyrics of Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova. So carefully chosen is every syllable that you can't help but be simultaneously swept up into the story and carried away into your own private world of personal ties to the action before you. So emotionally rich are the book and score that I venture to say that were it performed on a black stage with stools and scripts on stands, the impact of the piece, viscerally, would be the same as the full-blown performance.
Ah, but what a treasure is the visual of Once. The simplicity of Bob Crowley's unit set and every man costumes allows one to feel we are in a corner pub in Dublin, certainly, but really we could be in any intimate space sharing this most intimate piece. The walls, decorated with framed mirrors make us see ourselves at all times, a constant reminder that all of us are the guys and girls of the world - and the fathers, mothers, lovers and children. That the mirrors simply reflect, rather than distort in any way, tells us that we are simply meant to be a part of Once; it is not an overblown, highly symbolic commentary on society beyond the unity it engenders. The exquisitely warm but unobtrusive lighting by Natasha Katz provides the color, light and darkness that capture moments in time like photographs, helping us to know where to look, and to also sweep us away into this almost dreamlike world. The orchestrations of Martin Lowe are a sweet (and bold) mix of folk-rock and Irish folk music, including some tricky work for string instruments and a traditional Irish beat box. They offer a perfect frame for the sublimely understated score throughout the show. And the truly brilliant sound design by Clive Goodwin ensures that we don't miss a note or syllable, without ever once feeling like the show is even amplified. The combined efforts of the design team create no less than a sensory masterpiece unseen on Broadway in several seasons.
Guiding this mesmerizing piece in an exceptional, low key yet boldly theatrical presentation is director John Tiffany. Each scene is a work of art, each transition giving the work a seamless flow, making the two-and-a-half-hour run time fly by like a few seconds. The ebb and flow of focus on key players in each scene with the coming and going of the people outside the action is truly ingenious. And while having the cast play the instruments is certainly not a new thing, here it takes on a fresh vibrancy that is at once both completely natural feeling and dynamically theatrical. The same can be said for the movement provided by Steven Hoggett, who has crafted dances and transitions that have the feel of authentic Irish dancing and the ability to enhance the action - think Celtic Woman meets Spring Awakening. There is no feeling of bombastic manipulation that only hints at traditional folk dancing that we have come to expect from shows like Riverdance, which feels overly showy and only marginally authentic. Instead, the movement here has purpose and feels authentic merely by scaling it way back, allowing us to feel a part of the Irish tradition and part of the Broadway tradition at the same time.
The entire cast of thirteen is remarkable, even if you only consider that each has to be a quadruple threat, often simultaneously. One can only imagine how difficult it is to act and sing with an accent, play an instrument AND dance all at the same time. It sure makes singing while tap dancing look almost easy. There isn't a weak link in the bunch, and it is a testament to the group as a whole to see just how "as one" they are. Several ensemble members give notable performances, including David Patrick Kelly who plays the patriarch of the group and Guy's "da." He is charming and no-nonsense, while still showing a love for his son beneath the tough exterior he gives the world. Similarly, Ann L. Nathan exudes motherly strength and a sharp wit as Baruska, mother to the girl (and she has quite a way with the accordian, too!). Sleek and "local girl" sexy are Elizabeth Davis and Erikka Walsh, both of whom play fiddle while they dance and sing.
Comic relief and a large dose of a reality check come to us in the persons of Will Connelly (as the "washed up' has-been burger boy) and Paul Whitty (as nervous, quirky Billy, whose quirks endear rather than annoy). Andy Taylor is also quite funny as the uptight banker turned recording artist, and the utterly charming goofiness of Lucas Papaelias, as the Czech drummer who has learned English from television soaps, threatens to steal the show. The remaining ensemble members, David Abeles and J. Michael Zygo, also create memorable, folksy characters. (The adorable Ripley Sobo played the young Ivanka at the preview I attended.)
The two leads of the show - Steve Kazee as Guy and Cristin Milioti as Girl - are both making Broadway star turns that are not to be missed. Kazee and Milioti individually exude charm and charisma, enough to melt your heart and set your soul afire. But together, they ignite enough sparks and share an electric chemistry that could light up Times Square on New Year's Eve. Rarely does one witness such an emotionally charged symbiotic relationship. Their longing for each other is as palpable as the sorrow they share that comes from life choices that have to be made. Their attraction is instant, and you know you are in the presence of greatness right off the bat. I have never seen so much being told about a relationship on the stage as I did at one particular moment here. Guy is finishing up his busker number, "Leave," and Girl, standing wordlessly in a spotlight, catches his eye. Not a word of dialogue is spoken, a new number is not started. They simply stare at each other silently, and yet you know that both are lost souls, aching from past loves and exhilarated by the instant attraction they feel. Let me tell you, the audience is right there with them, exhilarated and in love.
I came into Once not knowing a thing about the story, the film or even its signature Academy Award-winning number, "Falling Slowly." But one doesn't need to have experienced the film to recognize that Once transcends the mold cast by so many film to stage works. It does what all of the very best film to stage works do: it celebrates the best aspects of the film while celebrating the medium of theatre at the same time, taking aspects from the film and transforming them into uniquely live stage moments. Instead of recreating the film, everyone involved has recreated a basic human love story in strictly theatrical terms. The difference here is that Once does it just that much better.
When I left the theatre, the tears were still rolling down my cheeks. I was moved, transported and jolted to life. I ached deeply, and I appreciated life just that much more for having the experience that is Once. It is the best show on Broadway.
(Photos by Joan Marcus and The New York Times)