See Once twice; it’s tastier the second time around. Or, if you are the sort of person who resists the emotional appeal that comes with its particular brand of music, its genre of story, and its approach to staging, it may be the musical you won’t want to see at all. How this division of audiences will affect the fate of an intimate show being presented commercially at Broadway prices makes for an interesting test case. A commercial theater that couldn’t find room for (and make affordable) a show of Once‘s distinctive quality wouldn’t be worth having—but a commercial theater exists, by definition, for its fiscal, not its aesthetic worth.
So Once, on Broadway (Jacobs Theatre), is a test: a starless show (its only link to fame being an Oscar-winning song from its indie-film source) on a quirky subject, treated tenderly and eccentrically, albeit with canny theatrical know-how. Me, I’m among the likers. I enjoyed the show in its Off-Broadway run, with some minor reservations, and enjoyed it more on Broadway, where it has undergone some minor trims and tightenings without losing any of its freewheeling, slightly giddy spirit.
Even to describe Once is a challenge. A Czech-Irish hootenanny that tells a sad-sweet love story, with open bar (audience welcome) during pre-show and intermission—in whose dreams does that constitute a Broadway musical? That the cast is also the band may not rank as a surprise after John Doyle’s ventures, but the notion is on sturdier ground here. While uprooted Czech girl (Cristin Milioti) meets, gets involved with, and inspires despairing Irish boy (Steve Kazee), music-making is their subject as well as their means of communication. Director John Tiffany, abetted with particular sensitivity by Steven Hoggett’s staged movement, gets everybody stomping and dancing, even (no easy task) those with violins under their chins.
Part of the test is whether an unassuming Broadway venture like this can still make stars: Kazee and Milioti, an endearingly mismatched pair, are certainly winning enough to qualify. And they’re winningly supported: The show has been handsomely cast all through, as regards both acting and musicianship. What a delight to see artists too often treated as oddball spare parts, like David Patrick Kelly and Anne L. Nathan, given something closer to their full theatrical value. Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová’s songs, after two hearings, have grown on me. I may even require a third visit.