At New York Theatre Workshop, 'Once,' falling slowly into a musical

"Once" plays at the New York Theatre Workshop before moving to Broadway.

"Once" plays at the New York Theatre Workshop before moving to Broadway. (December 12, 2011)

NEW YORK -  Anyone who caught the Irish guy Glen Hansard and the Czech girl Marketa Irglova playing their gorgeous song "Falling Slowly" on the Academy Awards telecast has a sense of both the strength and fragility of "Once," the haunting, 2006 independent movie drawn from their unlikely story of love on the streets of Dublin. Even at the epicenter of bejeweled commercial hype, this pair seemed curiously untouched, remarkably ordinary and wholly able to sing of the pain and necessity of falling down quietly, but also being able to help someone to get back up.

I can't yet speak of what Broadway will do to "Once," now a beautiful stage musical, but at the intimate New York Theatre Workshop this past weekend, the gifted trio of bookwriter Enda Walsh, director John Tiffany and movement guy Steven Hoggett (movement is really just one small part of the physical alchemy in which Hoggett specializes) revealed a perfectly crafted and thoroughly beguiling piece of theater that somehow managed to maintain the small scale of the story while making the fate of these vulnerable characters feel as important, at certain crucial moments, as breath itself, to borrow an existential trope that this show now so adroitly conveys.

"Once" (the lack of the addition of the words "A," or "The" and "Musical" speaks a thousand words) avoids all the common film-to-stage traps by deepening and thoroughly theatricalizing the story. Unlike so many of their peers in the adaptation business, Walsh and Tiffany clearly understand that musicals are rarely served by flying walls and the other clutter and clatter of a slew of short scenes in different cinematic locales, pursuing a cinematic plot.

Rather, "Once" now takes place entirely in a Dublin bar — designed by Bob Crowley and lit by Natasha Katz with what feels like a thousand glowing candles — except for the one scene when the two struggling musicians with complicated love lives take their own trip together outside the city. There, like Greek characters jumping on top of the ancient scene house, they appear high in the air, staring out at an Irish vista that will both redeem them and pull them apart.

That may sound pretentious for a yarn about a depressed street musician who gets re-energized by a seemingly random Czech girl he happens to meet, but it's really not. Tiffany ("Black Watch") has exploded the movie, but he's also simplified it. Instead of the Hoover shop, the Girl (Cristin Milioti, who is perfect) simply hands the Guy (Steve Kazee, perfect were he just a little less handsome) the requisite vacuum. There is no music shop, just the needed piano. Nobody leaves the world of Hansard and Irglova's sad yet aspirational song-suite, even when they go home.

Aided by Hoggett's masterfully organic blend of street movement and dance — here executed by a remarkable cast that plays and carries musical instruments throughout — the scenes just, well, fall softly into each other. Except when Tiffany, a formidably detailed director, wants to pull them up short and make you catch your breath.

The story closely follows the movie, which was only loosely scripted. Yet Walsh expands the core themes that emerged from the film (even if Hansard and Irglova did not quite know what they had), but were not fully articulated therein, because the medium of filmmaking did not so easy allow it as does an intimate live experience. On Broadway, the chief mantra should be do no harm when scaling up.

Thus even as it protects the gentle story (the two leads still perch on the edge of Eros throughout, never quite tipping over), this is the secret weapon of this staged "Once," which moved me more than any other show I saw this year.

This trio of artists are playing with the idea that this nameless Girl is a kind of secular guardian angel, albeit one with her own issues, sent to remind Guy that to live is to love and that to have a creative future, one must always remain open to new love, even if that actually means re-loving an old love. To pull that off without seeming trite is no mean feat. But it is achieved, as is the romantic argument that people come into one's life for a reason, even if they stay for only a short time. Such feelings are the life-blood of any romantic musical, and in "Once," the logic of their expression through Hansard and Irglova's melancholy songs is quite exquisite.

The supporting cast is exceptionally strong, especially Elizabeth A. David as the Girl's violin-wielding sidekick and David Patrick Kelly as the Guy's Da. One unforgettable scene is simply Da telling his son he should go and pursue his life and that his old man will be "grand." But it's a measure of the exquisite examination of human feeling underway here that you want that old man's blessing as much as his own son.

"Once" plays at the New York Theatre Workshop, 79 E. 4th St. through Jan. 15; contact 212-279-4200 or The show then transfers to the Bernard B. Jacobs Theater on Broadway; performances begin Feb. 28.

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