“Once” was an underdog of a movie. Made on a shoestring, released in the U.S. in 2007 and winner of the 2008 Oscar for Best Song “Falling Slowly,” it was a much-loved, beautiful little movie set in Dublin about an Irish street busker and a Czech immigrant, who meet, make music together, and fall in love. It’s been turned into a play. After a successful run Off Broadway at New York Theatre Workshop it’s opening tonight at Bernard Jacobs Theater (appropriately the day after St Patrick’s Day), and it’s just lovely.
It’s able to create a sense of intimacy with a semi-circular pub as the set. Before the play starts, audience members mingle onstage with musicians in an Irish “sesiun,” which seamlessly segues into the opening scene. Chairs and tables and an upright piano come and go as scenes shift. The supporting actors sit on the perimeter and slide into the action, as singers, dancers, and musicians as well as actors.
The basic plot is fairly close to the screenplay and true to the understated tone. The main differences are that the script, by the Irish playwright Enda Walsh, is very funny, and that the dynamics between the two main characters have reversed. In the movie the guy, played by Glen Hansard, is the one who draws out the girl, played by Marketa Irglova. But in the play the girl, played by Cristin Milioti is an irresistible force working on the reluctant guy, Steve Kazee. Both of them are first-rate. Milioti has an elfin appearance, a little like Erin McKeown, with a believable Czech accent both intense and vulnerable. Kazee is a fine stand-in for Hansard, with a plausible Irish accent and a great singing voice (which actually reminded me a bit of Luka Bloom).
The score uses almost all the songs from the movie, with just a couple new ones. The music arises organically out of the action. John Tiffany, who directed the amazing Scottish play “Black Watch” at St. Ann’s, keeps things flowly, with from Steven Hoggett, who choreographed “Black Watch.” Unlike other movies made into musicals – like “Sister Act” or “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” – “Once” isn’t slick. It’s more a play with music – the anti-“Spiderman.” It has delicacy and feeling and something to say about culture and dreams, and in the end, as the cast joined together for “Falling Slowly,” I was very moved. As with the movie, this underdog is a winner.