Dramatic justifications are offered, but not really needed, for the gorgeously dreamy pop ballads at the heart of Once, a stage version of the 2007 Irish indie film. In John Tiffany’s meticulous production for New York Theatre Workshop, songs are rendered stirringly and soulfully, and brought home with lush string and piano arrangements (by Martin Lowe). They express the conflicted but smoldering desires of Guy (Steve Kazee), a young vacuum repairman living above the shop with his widowed father, and Girl (Cristin Milioti), a Czech immigrant with family obligations of her own. Both Guy and Girl long for something greater than their lot–and for someone tender to share it with.
This tale of hard-up Dubliners making music and falling in love has a certain sheen of commercial aspiration to it—and rightfully so. The evocative dark-paneled Irish pub setting comes from designer Bob Crowley, and the slick lighting is by Natasha Katz—a top-tier team. Playwright Enda Walsh’s efficient book, too, delivers just the kind of uplifting, believe-in-your-inner-music message that Broadway might want to embrace somewhere down the road. (The second half mostly treads water—at least in narrative terms—but the music consistently redeems the telegraphic dialogue.)
Ultimately, however, the show is carried by the handsome and strikingly expressive Kazee, who turns sometimes flimsy dialogue into poignant utterances and whose singing voice convincingly soars beyond the limitations of his laconic character. With cherubic vocals, Milioti conveys the Girl’s loneliness and wounds, but her awakening desire seems mostly cosmic; you never quite feel romantic sparks or bodily attraction. Still, that’s just another dynamic to note in this cycle of confused feelings, and with such a rich central performance and score, it’s hard not to fall for Once.