Once Too Often: A Wrong Turn on Broadway

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Joan Marcus / BBB / Reuters

Steve Kazee, left, and Cristin Milioti in 'Once'

Not too long ago, the very idea of a Broadway musical adapted from a little Irish film called Once would have been inconceivable. The 2006 movie was a teensy, micro-budget independent feature about a Dublin street musician and the Czech girl who becomes his inspiration, soulmate and not quite girlfriend. The story is slight to the point of nonexistence, the love affair goes nowhere, and the film’s considerable charm lies almost entirely in its offhand, laid-back street realism — not exactly the theater’s long suit. Once on Broadway? You’re daft, man.

But that was before Avenue Q, Spring Awakening, Next to Normal — the wave of little alt-musicals that have found their way to Broadway in the past few seasons and, more often than not, outshone the multimillion-dollar blockbusters. When it comes to Broadway musicals these days, little is big.

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Once, to be sure, has some appealing prospects for the stage. First is its galvanizing score, written by the film’s co-stars, Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova: a succession of lost-love ballads marked by simple four-and-five-note musical hooks, repeated with anguished, almost incantatory power. One of the numbers (“Falling Slowly”) won an Oscar for best song, and the rest of the score could fill up Oscar (or Tony) nomination lists for years to come. The show also brings to Broadway the choreographer Steven Hoggett (who did the innovative movement for the performance piece Black Watch, about an Scottish army regiment in Iraq), who keeps all the actors on the stage all the time, giving them snatches of synchronized movement to accentuate the emotions of the songs.

But Once on stage (it debuted off-Broadway last fall, before opening this week at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theater) turns out to be once too often. In ways both obvious and subtle, the charm of the movie has been almost totally lost. The chief culprit, I’m afraid, is Cristin Milioti’s too high-pitched performance as the (unnamed) girl. In the film, Irglova was a winsome but hard-headed lost soul. Here she’s a pushy-wacky Audrey Hepburn wannabe, with an amped-up Czech accent that all but takes over the role. Milioti uses her blunt, cute-deadpan manner to draw laughs everywhere she can (“Why don’t you kill him?” is among the lines that draw guffaws), and never seems inside her character. Seldom have I seen a show thrown so out of whack by one performance.

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Steve Kazee is probably too good-looking as the guy, but at least he gets closer to the spirit of the scruffy original. Yet writer Enda Walsh and director John Tiffany go in for too many cheap crowd-pleasing tricks, like turning the girl’s Czech flatmates into sitcom-quirky band members. And for all the soulful Irish realism, false notes ring everywhere in the cutesy dialogue. (Girl: “I have made a big decision. Do you want to hear it?”)

The whole thing is dragged out to nearly two and a half hours (the movie ran 85 minutes), and yet too many lines seemed rushed, a beat too quick for real human reactions.  Then too, setting the story inside a Dublin bar, where the couple have an audience much of the time, changes the feel of the piece — from an ambling fantasy about two loners from the Dublin streets, to yet another folksy tribute to the sad-but-soulful Irish Character.

OK, I’m being too hard on Once. The music remains wonderful — raw and real and better than anything you’re likely to hear in the theater all season. Anyone who comes to Once with no knowledge of the movie will probably have little reason to complain. The show will win Tony awards.  What’s more, rooting for it puts you on the side of the artistic angels: it’s the kind of show (sincere, low-key, original) that Broadway could use more of. I just wish I could join in the toasts.

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Zoglin, TIME’s theater critic and a former assistant managing editor, is the author of Comedy at the Edge: How Stand-up in the 1970s Changed America