After its much heralded arrival off-Broadway in December, the new musical Once has opened at Broadway’s Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre. And though the show, based on Jim Carney’s hit indie film from 2007 which boasts award-winning songs by Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova, has moved into a grander and more capacious uptown setting, it has beautifully retained its power to move audiences.
Indeed director John Tiffany’s meticulous production and scenic designer Bob Crowley’s grand recreation of an Irish pub nestle perfectly into the new venue. And, thankfully, the transfer has not meant the elimination of the piece’s pre-show, party atmosphere. As audiences enter the theater, the company of actor-musicians is onstage hosting a raucous jam session during which theatergoers can enjoy the tunes from their seats or opt to belly up to the bar for a pint. It still is the best way to make sure that audiences are fiercely involved with this tale from the start.
Once the show has begun in earnest and the street guitarist known simply as “Guy” (Steve Kazee) and the Czech amateur pianist “Girl” (Cristin Milioti) meet, well, that’s when the heart of the show genuinely begins beating. The two come together just as he’s decided to abandon his guitar. She convinces him to not discard the music for which he is so passionate, and thus begins the tentative romance between two wounded souls, each of whom has an absent love in their lives.
Kazee and Milioti share an almost electric chemistry and also imbue the characters with marvelous layers of passion and hurt. He’s particularly deft at allowing Guy’s vulnerability to emerge from underneath the character’s rugged, self-controlled façade, while she imbues Girl with a fierceness and determination that simply pulses with tenderness and warmth. Further, Kazee’s rich baritone and clarion tenor upper register beautifully caress the show’s often plaintive rock-folk songs.
Their fine work is gloriously supported by the ensemble members, who serve as both actors and the show’s orchestra, joining in for numbers that often begin as intimate solos for the leads before transforming into something more. One of the most striking — and stirring — examples of this comes when Girl hijacks Guy into playing at a local pub, and as his performance seduces the patrons, the company slowly begins to join in on their instruments and as the music swells, Guy’s monumental success is completely understood.
Additionally, when the ensemble members are not playing their instruments, they are delivering finely crafted performances, particularly Andy Taylor, who amuses as a bank manager who reluctantly loans Guy and Girl the money to book a studio for a demo recording session; David Patrick Kelly who gives a spry and gently modulated performance as Guy’s Da; and Anne L. Nathan, who proves to be a subtle spitfire as Girl’s mom.
What may be most impressive about the ensemble is the warmth and loving spirit that permeates their collective work. It simply heightens the central romance, which, by its remarkably pungent conclusion, can provoke tears.