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Photo by Sara Krulwich, The New York Times

New York Theatre Workshop present ONCE, Book Enda Walsh. Music and Lyrics by Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre, Broadway, New York.

ONCE, the musical, is an adaptation of a low budget, small Independent film from Ireland, directed by John Carney in 2007. Both, the film and the musical play, tell the story of a young Irish busker with a broken heart, called “Guy” who meets a young married Czech refugee called “Girl” (yes, really) and find that they can make music together. The twist is that this romantic musical does not have the usual happy ending – very Irish, indeed.

This production is by the team that created the more recent Broadway production of THE GLASS MENAGERIE. Directed by John Tiffany; Choreography/movement by Steven Hoggett; Design by Bob Crowley; Lighting by Natasha Katz. The Book has been written by a favoured contemporary writer, Enda Walsh ( PENELOPE). They are the reason, I elected to see this show, over the myriad of musical theatre choices that one has on Broadway. The impression of the collective talent exciting in anticipation.

The original film took only 90 minutes to tell this story and this adaptation takes some 2 hours (plus interval!) – so, in my experience the work feels stretched beyond its bearability, and despite the anti-romantic ending (from the film source) is maudlin and sentimental in extremis. “Guy” is a whiny, depressed folk-pop singer who begins, thrashing with palpable pain his guitar, with a soulful dirge called “Leave” and at the end of the arc of this story, 5 days later (it did feel that long in the theatre, too), is still dirging away with a reprise of the 2007 Academy Award winning song, “Falling Softly”, accompanied by the soulful and perkily depressed “Girl” – she, too, having made no positive movement in her personal life in the arc of the play. Both begin underdogs and losers, both finish underdogs and losers – very Irish, indeed.

This production is antithetical to the BIG monster musical (e.g. SPIDER-MAN) that has dominated the Broadway scene in the recent decade or so, and may account for its winning of 8 Tony Awards – a clear, cheap change that demonstrates a kind of economic rationalism that obviously goes a long way to winning the votes of the current Broadway/Tony awarding peers. SPIDER-MAN costing $75 million! with no real possibility of recovering it.

ONCE has one setting, an Irish Pub, and it sits there, decoratively, curved around the upper edges of the stage – no whiz bang twirling or flying – once built and nailed down, it stays put for the duration of the season. Cost? A heaven sent economy! Scene location shifts are accomplished by the actors, simply, with small indicated changes of props/furniture and lighting.

When we enter the theatre, the company, are on stage, and you can join them, and purchase from that Irish Pub bar, a pint. In the interval it re-opens to the public for more service and musical camaraderie – maybe being drunk was the right way to enjoy this show – very, very Irish, indeed. ONCE follows the recent trend of some musical theatre to have all the artists be, not only the actor/singers/dancers/stage-hands, but, also their own musical accompanists, their own orchestra. In this company, then, all 12 artists play various instruments. These performers do it all – these 12 actors cover all the job descriptions necessary to make the show work -what an economic haven of inspiration – very Irish, indeed.

There is no real choreography, to this show, either, just an individual movement vocabulary for the actors that, occasionally appears to grow into a ‘dance’. Mr Hoggett who was responsible for one of the elements of the success of THE GLASS MENAGERIE, the movement, does a similar thing here. Unfortunately, the remarkable gifts of the Menagerie cast is not available on the stage of the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre, and so what appears as a visual joy at the Booth Theatre, is, in the bodies and gestures of these less ‘great’ artists, to be self-conscious and irritatingly “fey” – very Irish, indeed.

The writing, from Mr Walsh begins well, and I was excited for about 10 minutes, but the basic film  story line and character observation is so limiting in its ‘blueprint’ for the musical adaptation, that Mr Walsh appears uncharacteristically befuddled with his words, and, perforce, collapses into the pre-prescribed vocabulary of rather dull immature people in a silly and wearying plot line. I imagine his monetary return is compensatory – very Irish, indeed.

Ms Joanna Christie (“Girl”) has some real temperament and a character that has some spark of get-up-and-go and brings some brightness to the stage, even humour. Arthur Darvill (“Guy”) is saddled with a very tiresome, emotionally, indulgent, entitled child as a character, and has to deliver a musical score that has a very limited appeal: whiny folk-pop; and, except for others who may contemplate suicide when they scuff there boots or chip a nail, it is boring and repetitive beyond belief (Music and Lyrics by Glen Hansard & Marketa Irglova). Mr Darvill seems to be buried in the opportunities of this musical, and is, ultimately, less than appealing.

Blah, blah, blarney, blah, blah.

I did not enjoy myself in the least. And because I sat amongst many who did, many, I became more and more ‘enraged’ and depressed at the cute banality of it all. A young Irish girl sat beside me. She came late – very Irish indeed. “Genevieve” (not “Girl”) has been away from Ireland for six months, or so, she told us, and so wept her way through all the show – very, very Irish in its nostalgic sentimentality, indeed. I managed to hide my chagrin and didn’t spoil her night – for she stood gushing and heaving with sobs at the curtain call, along with others. I felt like such a party pooper – but I refused to join her on the stage, to dance and sing, carouse with the cast, and instead forced myself to give an encouraging smile and got out of there as quickly as possible. Not easy in a Broadway theatre, the seats so tightly arranged.

I should have gone to see NEWSIES, the Disney dance show, for a little bit of old fashioned pizazz, instead of this economically rationalised package of maudlin sentimentality, wrapped in ‘groovy’ but extremely dated – everywhere but Broadway, it seems – methods of staging. It certainly enhanced my respect for the genius of the THE GLASS MENAGERIE company of actors, to see similar aesthetic techniques used by the same creative artists (Director, Designers and Movement/choreographer), relatively, fail to integrate, all their ‘genius’ into a satisfactory whole for ONCE.

You will see this show, I guarantee, on professional and amateur stages, for the rest of time, because it is so economical to stage and, hey!, is cute and has audience participation – you, too, can be on stage, and, sing and dance – Irish ballads and jigs. You can drink up there, and get your autographs for your program without having to wait forever at the stage door afterwards, as well.

 But, for me, once, was enough. Quite enough. Pure torture – very Irish, indeed.