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.