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Review - Once & Death Of A Salesman

Before the audience members began to take their seats for the Off-Broadway premiere of Once this past December, members of the press were already sent an email announcing that the production would be moving to Broadway following its limited run at the New York Theatre Workshop. Thus, the fact that the critical response to the show supported such a move seemed superfluous.

The frequency with which Off-Broadway musicals have been moving to Times Square means we're often pondering the question of what "belongs" on Broadway. The answer we'd like to hear is, "The best theatre the country has to offer," but all too often the quality of the material seems of lesser importance than the size of the production, the subject matter and whether or not there are names involved that would excite ticket-buyers outside of the theatre community. (These issues don't seem to matter as much when it comes to straight plays.) Rent, Urinetown and Spring Awakening successfully made the leap, but in the past several seasons we've been left wondering if [title of show], The Scottsboro Boys, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson and Lysistrata Jones would have been better off trying for a commercial run in an Off-Broadway house. (Of course, even for a quickly closing musical, the prestige of having been on Broadway increases the property's value for tours and regional productions.)

So the new arrival on 45th Street is a small, one simple set musical based on a modestly popular film, utilizing everyday contemporary costumes and starring two actors whose talents are well-respected within the theatre community but have no recognition factor to the general public. Those braving the unknown will find a lovely, emotionally rich production that has made a very smooth transition to a much larger theatre.

In fact, the only bit of awkwardness comes before the show proper actually begins. As audience members enter they are invited to assemble on stage inside designer Bob Crowley's cozy Dublin pub, where they may purchase a libation from the bar and enjoy watching members of the ensemble of thirteen, all of whom play musical instruments, strumming and bowing traditional folk songs, dancing a bit and singing their hearts out. The festive mood resembles the kind of improvised jam session you might luckily stumble upon some night and never want to leave. The smaller crowds at the New York Theatre Workshop fit nicely onto the space, but it's a bit of a tight squeeze in the Broadway house.

Though patrons are gently scooted back to their seats near showtime, the causal off-the-cuffness continues for a bit but before we realize it's happening, director John Tiffany and lighting designer Natasha Katz have seamlessly brought us into the storytelling aspect of the play without ever letting go of the atmosphere of that friendly neighborhood bar.

I say "play" purposefully. Though Once will be considered a musical when award season comes around (Enda Walsh's beautifully written adaptation of John Carney's 2006 screenplay is credited as the book), it's really a play that happens to use a lot of songs as a realistic part of the plot. The simple, bittersweet love story has a guitar-playing singer, simply referred to as "Guy" (Steve Kazee) ready to give up on music after a bad break-up, until he meets a somewhat intriguing Czech pianist called "Girl" (Cristin Milioti) who encourages him to not only keep playing, but to take out a loan, get a band together and make a studio demo recording. Though the two grow attracted to each other, each has baggage that would have to be dealt with before a relationship could be considered.

The score by Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova (who starred in the film) is an attractive collection of Irish folk/rock selections (including Oscar-winner, "Falling Slowly") that, in context, were written by the characters who sing them and the tricky part of having them presented is that, although some may be inspired by events in the story, they're never specific enough to keep the plot moving. This creates a few slow spots in act one, but Walsh and Tiffany generally do a fine job of making sure every musical moment is about something, even if it's not fully expressed in the lyrics. By the second act, Walsh's outstanding scene work has fully become the emotional guts of the piece, so much so that many of the numbers are completed without applause buttons because the characters' reactions to the songs become more important than the audience's. If you do insist on calling Once a musical, it's a rare musical where the spoken moments are the most memorable; particularly at a point late in the story where a climactic scene is played in its entirety for startling effect with just one sentence.

But when the music does take over, it's given a ravishing treatment. Players not involved with scenes remain on stage with their instruments, joining in at points to give the impression that the pre-show party has never ended. Music supervisor Martin Lowe keeps their collection of mandolins, fiddles, guitars and the like conveying the feel of an impromptu jam. If someone is inspired to dance, choreographer Steven Hoggett's movements are done with the same sense of improvised realism. It comes off so naturally that an isolated moment where the cast moves in unison rings false.

Milioti, who has been doing some excellent work in non-musical Off-Broadway plays, may be giving her breakout performance here; revealing Girl as an emotionally fragile young woman who can be forceful and comically direct with others but painfully timid about herself. She worries about having a cold exterior when she bottles up the love she's fearful of expressing. Kazee gives Guy a sturdy exterior to protect a wounded soul; the kind of man who can only share the many textures of his heart through his music. Though they spend most of the story hesitant to plunge beyond a safe emotional distance from each other, the yearning chemistry between them is thick.

They're surrounded by a colorful ensemble that makes up a warm and nurturing community, particularly David PatRick Kelly as Guy's gracious and loving father and Paul Whitty as Girl's burley and eccentrically poetic would-be suitor, who remains protective and supportive while accepting her romantic disinterest.

The power of Once is in its ability to gently draw you into its story with exceptional writing, staging and acting; all of which combine to create a world far fuller than any outlandishly expensive spectacle could hope to realize.

Photos by Joan Marcus: Top: Steve Kazee and Cristin Milioti; Bottom: Steve Kazee and Company.

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The freedom to pursue the Great American Dream to success is a right that, at least on paper, is guaranteed to every citizen of this country. But as the ruthless Broadway producer David Merrick would say, in order for one to succeed, others must fail.

Arthur Miller's Death Of A Salesman may not celebrate failure, but it recognizes the simple truth of its inevitability, even in the most fervent of dreamers. His protagonist, Willy Loman, has become an iconic symbol for the regular guy who can't catch a lucky break and lacks the talent and insight to make one for himself.

Director Mike Nichols makes the unusual choice of mounting his sturdy, heart-on-its-sleeve production in a replica of Jo Mielziner's original set for the play's 1949 Elia Kazan-directed premiere. Its skeletal service of the play's shifts from reality to memory to hallucination is performed seamlessly, supported by Alex North's elegant scoring, also from the original.

Philip Seymour Hoffman appears somewhat young and robust for Willy, the aging salesman who tries to secure a position in town, no longer able to handle exhausting road trips. But the gregarious, innocent optimism he brings to the role, a mask for the man's misery, is an effective choice. This is a man desperate to be liked, and that desperation can be easily sniffed by higher-ups such as his inappreciative boss (Remy Auberjonois).

Andrew Garfield also appears too young for Biff, Willy's oldest son; a man in his mid-30s no longer able to sail on his youthful promise. But whereas Hoffman allows you to suspend disbelief, Garfield, despite a fine presence, rarely conveys the sense of defeat inside a man who sees himself on the same unimpressive path as his father.

Finn Wittrock makes a solid impression as Happy, the attention-hungry, eager to please younger brother who grows into a shallow womanizer, and Linda Emond solidly anchors the production as Willy's nurturing, protective wife who lovingly supports his unrealistic dreams.

This is very much an ensemble production, as evidence by a strong supporting cast that includes Bill Camp as the sympathetic neighbor, Charley, and John Glover as Willy's idealized vision of his successful deceased older brother.

By design, this is not an inventive production of what many consider the great American play, but an uncomplicated one that attempts to connect contemporary viewers with the way post-war audiences were introduced to the drama. With its publicity stills in classic black and white and the words "Made in America" affixed to its logo, this Nichols production is proudly meat and potatoes.

Photo of Philip Seymour Hoffman by Brigitte Lacombe.

Click here to follow Michael Dale on Twitter.

"I hand him a lyric and get out of the way."

-- Oscar Hammerstein II

The grosses are out for the week ending 4/1/2012 and we've got them all right here in BroadwayWorld.com's grosses section.

Up for the week was: SISTER ACT (14.1%), MAMMA MIA! (7.5%), SEMINAR (7.1%), EVITA (3.6%), Gore Vidal'S THE BEST MAN (2.4%), END OF THE RAINBOW (2.0%), MARY POPPINS (1.9%), THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (1.4%), GODSPELL (0.9%), NEWSIES (0.5%), DEATH OF A SALESMAN (0.1%),

Down for the week was: JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR (-17.7%), OTHER DESERT CITIES (-5.7%), PORGY AND BESS (-5.5%), ONCE (-5.0%), PRISCILLA QUEEN OF THE DESERT (-4.6%), War Horse (-4.3%), HOW TO SUCCEED IN BUSINESS WITHOUT REALLY TRYING (-3.6%), ANYTHING GOES (-3.1%), GHOST (-3.0%), VENUS IN FUR (-3.0%), JERSEY BOYS (-2.2%), MAGIC/BIRD (-2.1%), MEMPHIS (-1.6%), ROCK OF AGES (-1.5%), CHICAGO (-0.7%), WICKED (-0.4%), SPIDER-MAN TURN OFF THE DARK (-0.1%),

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