Every educated Broadway fan knows that plays based on movies are murdering musical theatre, replacing artistic expression with soulless corporate crap -- right? Well, say what you want about cinema-inspired schlock like Flashdance or Young Frankenstein, but Once may just be the exceptional exception that proves the rule. Based on writer/director John Carney's 2006 indie hit, this 2012 Best Musical Tony-winner feels so honest and intimate that it belongs in a cozy club, instead of the cavernous Bob Carr (and I mean that as the highest compliment).
Playwright Enda Walsh's adaptation of Carney's screenplay starts with a deceptively simple meet-cute. The Guy (Stuart Ward) is a heartbroken guitarist who works in his father's Dublin vacuum repair shop; the Girl (Dani deWaal) is a piano-playing Czech immigrant with a young daughter and a Hoover that doesn't suck. He's stuck on a girlfriend that left him for the Big Apple, but she pulls him out of his funk by finding a motley crew of musicians to record a demo CD of his songs -- including the Oscar-winning anthem "Falling Slowly," and others by film stars Glen Hansard & Markéta Irglová -- so he can pursue stardom.
The story may seem like a simple modern urban fairy tale, but it takes unexpected bittersweet turns that ring far truer than the average onstage romance. Moreover, director John Tiffany's impressionistic staging feels effortlessly organic, placing all the action in a working-class Irish pub so authentic you'll want to order a pint -- which is exactly what the audience is encourage to do during intermission. This is the first show I've seen since John Doyle's Sweeney Todd where the cast is also the orchestra, playing all the instruments from the stage; it never seems like a gimmick, but rather a natural extension of the characters' song-filled souls. And special attention must be paid to choreographer Steven Hoggett's magically minimalist movement, which turns the smallest scene transitions into subtle mini-masterpieces of modern dance.
I've neglected to praise the performances of the uniformly excellent cast, mostly because they all disappear into their roles to such an extent that they hardly seem to be acting. Evan Harrington ("Billy") Matt DeAngelis ("Švec") provide comic relief as a karate-kicking shopkeep and over-caffeinated soap-watcher, while Claire Wellin ("Réza") shines as the Girl's flirty friend with a fiery fiddle. But it's the unforced chemistry between the leads, along with the richly folk-flavored acoustic score, that makes this show soar.
If I have one criticism, it's that the Bob Carr's uncharacteristically underamplified sound mix, combined with some thick Irish accents, made it difficult to decipher some of the lyrics, though I had no trouble following their emotional intent. It may not have the big-budget bombast of other Broadway blockbusters, but Once's engagingly, achingly raw authenticity is the kind of special effect money can't buy.