by Terence Diamond

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Wednesday December 7, 2011

The cast of "Once" at the New York Theater Workshop
The cast of "Once" at the New York Theater Workshop  (Source:Joan Marcus)

The New York Theatre Workshop production, "Once," is a theatrical adaptation of the Academy Award-winning indie Irish film of the same title. "Once," the film, was written and directed by John Carney and starred Glen Hansard and Margeta IrglovŠ, (the real-life romantic and creative couple) who wrote the original music and lyrics.

The film was made for $150,000, shot in 17 days, and grossed $20 million worldwide. It became a critically acclaimed international smash. The duo won the Best Original Song Academy Award in 2008 for "Falling Slowly." In addition to the Oscar, Mr. Hansard, and Ms. IrglovŠ won the Los Angeles Film Critics Award for Best Music, and the film's soundtrack was nominated for two Grammy Awards.

I didn't expect a slavish re-creation of the film. But I was curious about how this story of a young girl who pulls a guy almost twice her age out of a creative slump would be dramatized on stage. The film was not "A Star Is Born," but a somewhat realistic snapshot of the creative life.

Instead of a love match, (which actually happened later in real life) what the characters discover is far richer -- a mutual creative partnership that changes them both. Fortunately for this production, the music they made is so good that it transcends this staging's limitations.

The directing/writing team is fresh from their respective St. Ann's Warehouse seasons and confer that avant garde cred. St. Ann's recently staged the Irish playwright Enda Walsh's "The Walworth Farce." John Tiffany directed the well-received "Black Watch." Their contributions to the adaptation are modest.

Walsh's book attempts to flesh out certain humorous strands of the story that don't add up to anything. The director Tiffany sets the action entirely in a pub with a simple surreal touch -- mirrors lining the pub walls instead of, one presumes, local soccer colors and poster ads for Guinness and Killian Red.

The musicians provide a dynamic prelude and several entre-actes with Irish folk songs and jigs. It is that very energy and spirit that makes this show a must-see.

They wisely refrain from doing too much else to the plot -- which was fairly thin anyway -- and chose to enhance a story about musical collaboration with the addition of about a dozen musicians with guitars, fiddles, mandolins, and drums. As needed, the musicians double as minor characters and chorus.

The director makes the best of their live presence infusing the quiet, small story of the film with enormous energy. The musicians provide a dynamic prelude and several entre-actes with Irish folk songs and jigs. It is that very energy and spirit that makes this show a must-see. Full disclosure, I usually can't abide musicals. But this production is not standard musical theatre fare.

The leads, however, don't seem to know what to do with their roles. What they do bring is a bit monochromatic. Cristin Milioti plays Girl, a young immigrant mother who is classically trained and boasts an ear for quality. Steve Kazee plays Guy, a love-besotted Irishman who has decided to quit music exactly at the point that he encounters Girl on a Dublin street.

Kazee plays Guy as a passive and lovesick lad. Milioti's Girl pushes Guy around like a hectoring babushka after hearing him sing. She is dead certain about Guy's talent but doesn't seem to be concerned about her own musical aspirations.

The two are supposed to become lovers. As played by the two actors, there's no way in hell that these people would have ever gotten together. You just have to take it for granted.

Whether you're a fan of Hansard and IrglovŠ's music or a newbie you'll like -- and maybe even be moved by -- this "Once." The show's creative team managed to burnish the plot's best attributes, the music, without being heavy-handed with the story.

"Once" plays through January 1, 2012, at New York Theatre Workshop, 79 East 4th St. For info or tickets call 212-279-4200 or visit www.nytw.org.

Terence Diamond's first job out of high school was a union meat slicer for a Danish ham factory in suburban New Jersey. Despite two adventures in academia, Terence grew up to be a playwright, journalist, and short story writer. Terence is a prolific author of almost exclusively queer themed full-length and short play. Terence's work is listed in 'Gay and Lesbian American Plays: An Annotated Bibliography.' Terence is formerly an assistant professor of English at Long Island University and a member of the Dramatists Guild. Currently Terence teaches grant writing to artists at 3rd Ward Education in Brooklyn, contributes to PrettyQueer.com and Curve Magazine. He also writes grants for and advises small theatre companies, including a queer theatre startup.