The Irish pub party starts early for those arriving at the Phoenix Theatre to see “Once.”
There’s a working bar on the set and booze to be had before the musical begins. The audience is invited to raise a glass among the actor-musicians who are limbering up their Celtic songs of love lost and happiness found.
The crowd jumping onstage at London’s press night was more raucous than at the Broadway opening I saw a year ago before St. Patrick’s Day. This time, the revelers had to be ushered back to their seats to get the show on the road.
The London production is headed by the team that created the Bernard Jacobs Theater sellout now garlanded with eight Tony Awards including Best Musical.
Bob Crowley’s barroom set and John Tiffany’s raw direction combine to revise the 2006 indie movie which was shot for $150,000 and made more than $20 million.
The plot is an old-fashioned game of consequences.
Struggling busker meets frustrated pianist in Dublin. She asks him, “Do you enjoy being Irish?” He says, “Seriously?” She says, “I am always serious, I am Czech.”
As a result, they have a satisfying musical relationship and inconclusive romance. The world says, “Will they or won’t they?”
This story gained an edge in the film by a real-life songwriting partnership and love between the leads Marketa Irglova and Glen Hansard.
In the musical it’s less effective, even with lively performances from singer Declan Bennett and Zrinka Cvitesic, who according to the program was the 2007 winner of Croatia’s “Strictly Come Dancing.”
While the sexual tension could be ended at any time by what she calls “hanky panky,” that looks less likely as the evening goes on. Guy (as he is simply called) misses his old flame in New York and Girl (as she is known) has an absent husband.
There’s some unneeded explanation and forced dialog along the way as the show flirts with sugary sentiment, sappy romance and a parody of “Riverdance.”
What saves it is the simple and sweet music.
“Leave” is aggressively strong, “Gold” better than its cliche about ‘not trading you for gold,’ and “When Your Mind’s Made Up” grows from solo voice to the whole ensemble giving it their all complete with rock drums.
Then of course there’s “Falling Slowly,” which won the Oscar for best original song, and is as breathtakingly good as anything you’ll hear in a musical on either side of the pond.
The ballad’s reprise led to a prolonged standing ovation, and coming out of the theater I heard many expressions of the “wow” and “I loved it” sort. It’s worth going to see for “Falling Slowly” alone. Rating: ****.
Also at the Bernard Jacobs Theatre, 242 W. 45th St., New York. Information: +1-212-239-6200; http://www.telecharge.com.
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(Mark Beech writes for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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