#StageReview: New York Theatre Workshop's ONCE on Broadway

Arthur Darvill and Joanna Christie play Guy and Girl in Broadway's Once.
Photo © Joan Marcus

Once, Again.
Falling slowly
the second time around

I first had the pleasure of seeing Once almost exactly a year ago, on my birthday.  I was accompanied then by my mother, who – bless her – doesn't not go to the theatre often and therefore did not understand the practically earth-shattering repercussions of crinkling candy wrappers in a packed theatre.  That said, all was forgiven by the time the show ended and she proceeded to fangirl over then-lead actor Steve Kazee, exclaiming (this is all the more accurate if you imagine it being said with a slightly-tinged Filipino accent and in a manner not unlike that of a teenage girl at a One Direction concert): “Oh my god, Jess!  The lead actor is so cute, just like Ben Affleck!!1!1!”

If such an exclamation sounds familiar, well…what can I say?  Like mother, like daughter.

In any case, in the midst of such excitement I, for some reason or other, decided not to review the show – partly because I was distracted by my mother’s presence, and partly due to the fact that it was, of course, my birthday.  And now with my birthday once again looming around the corner and Arthur Darvill leaving that very same day, I thought it was time to finally review and reflect on the show.

For the uninitiated, Once (2007) began as an independent film directed by John Carneywhich starred then relatively unknown musicians Glen Hansard (of the band The Frames) and Marketa Irglova.  The movie, about an Irish busker who meets and falls in love with a Czech girl through their love of music, also happened to chronicle the real-life romance that bloomed between the two musicians over the course of filming.  (The two, who performed together under the name The Swell Season, have since parted romantically and pursued solo careers.)  The film’s unofficial “theme” song, ‘Falling Slowly,’ went on to be nominated for and eventually win the Oscar for Best Original Song.  The film then began to undergo treatment as a stage musical, with a book written by playwright Enda Walsh.  It was produced off-Broadway at famed downtown institution New York Theatre Workshop in 2011, eventually transferring to Broadway in 2012, where it currently runs at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre.

Those that know me also know that in addition to being a theatre nerd, I also happen to be a rabid (and I mean rabid) anglophile, and though I can’t fully claim to be a “proper” Whovian, I can at least attest to being an enthusiastic fan of the iconic British sci-fi series, Doctor Who.  Fresh off his stint as Rory Williams Pond on Who, Darvill is a more than capable replacement for Kazee’s Guy in Once.  Way, way more than capable.  In fact, he is a surprisingly commanding leading man and a heartbreaking performer, at that.  As Guy, one could not help but believe his pain as he breaks into the first notes of ‘Leave.’ 

Much more raw and gruff-sounding than his predecessor’s beautiful yet more refined voice, Darvill’s vocal stylings seem to truly capture the essence of what songwriter Hansard intended.  Just as it was easy to believe Darvill as a ‘Broken-Hearted Hoover-Fixer Sucker Guy,’ it was easy to see him ‘Falling Slowly’ for a pretty, piano-playing Czech Girl.  (Yes, that was a cheesy attempt to include the song titles, but just go with it.)  Darvill was at once charming and awkward, and in his scenes with Joanna Christie as Girl, a simple stare or look in his eye seemed to fill the theatre with just as much emotion as when he sang. 

For her part, Ms. Christie made for a soft-spoken Girl than Cristin Milioti’s, whose acclaimed performance had often been punctuated with her own sarcastic wit.  Much of Christie’s delivery were not as sharp as Milioti’s; and while still managing laughs from the audience, she also had some moments where I could barely hear her.  Perhaps this was due to a sound problem, as pieces of dialogue throughout the show could not be heard as clearly – or at least, as clearly as I remembered it. 

This is, however, live theatre after all and despite whatever technical difficulties there may have been were surely made up for whenever Christie took to the piano to sing, by which time her voice could definitely be heard.  And what a voice it was!  Where the two Guys had gone from refined beauty to edgy rawness, here it was the opposite.  While Milioti’s voice did not necessarily carry a rawness, it was more ethereal and otherworldly – as if it couldn’t possibly be coming out of that tiny body.  Christie's Girl sang with more restraint and therefore less dynamic compared to Milioti, and felt more in tune with the Girl we'd met through Irglova's protrayal in the film.  

As for the rest of the cast, I was pleased to see that most of the original ensemble stayed intact (with the exception of: Paul Whitty, who was out this performance and replaced by Brandon Ellis in the role of Billy; and Elizabeth A. Davis, who is now replaced by Katrina Lenk as Reza): most particularly David Patrick Kelly, who always leaves me breathless with his pre-show performances; and Anne L. Nathan as the hilarious Baruska.  Lucas Papaelias as Svec is as funny and odd as ever; while Carlos Valdes, Erikka Walsh and J. Michael Zygo round out the cast with equally scene-stealing performances.

One cannot talk about Once without mentioning the music, of course.  While much of the music kept favorites from the film (such as the above mentioned and others like 'When Your Mind's Made Up'), I lamented the absence of other songs like 'Lies,' and 'All the Way Down.'  Still, this was more than made up for with the inclusion of newer pieces that highlighted the folk background of each culture: the rousing Czech number, 'Ej Pada Pada Rosicka' and show-opener 'The North Strand.'  I also loved that 'Gold' -- which was featured briefly in the film and one of the only songs not written by Hansard and Irglova -- had a bigger "role" in the stage version.  Other additions such as 'The Moon' and 'Sleeping' performed by the ensemble during scene transitions provided a quiet and moody backdrop to the love story unfolding before us.

If music was the third character in this show, the lighting and choreography were certainly the supporting cast.  One of my favorite moments of the show is something that most people probably would not necessarily notice as it was happening; that is, the first lighting cue at the start of the show, just as Guy starts singing 'Leave.'  I liken it to a similar cue in Spring Awakening, in which the lights very subtly dim during the opening number.  Here, it's very much the same way, with an unbeknownst audience listening to the song being performed before them, the lights dimming as Guy's guitar strums away.  It may not seem like a major thing, but with a show like this wherein the cast is onstage already singing before the show even starts, the effect is such that it's as if the show is letting you know you're in for an emotional ride. (As a former stage managing intern, I can talk forever about lighting cues, and probably would go on forever if not for this review.)  That said, kudos to lighting designer Natasha Katz, thrills throughout the rest of the show, and movement coordinator Stephen Hoggett, whose choreography perfectly accompanied the show's soulful score.  Together, the two devices acted much like a thoughtful friend nudging you towards your crush, it helped bring together the elements needed for Guy and Girl's journey.

Despite any distractions I'd had the first time, I still managed to fall in love with the show.  This time 'round, it wasn't that hard to fall in love once again.  

Arthur Darvill's last performance is on December 15th, 2013.
Once is on an open-ended run
at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre.
For more information about this production,