Rowdy Bar, Brooding Ballads Fuel Charming ‘Once’: Jeremy Gerard

A fine party is underway when you enter the New York Theatre Workshop to see “Once.” Feel free to join in.

The bar onstage is open for business and patrons on guitars, fiddles, drums and accordion are outdoing one another with anthems to the woeful miseries of love soured.

None is more scorching than “Leave,” a cri de coeur delivered by a strumming singer who takes over center stage.

A young woman approaches, asking if he has written this wrenching tune.

Soon we’re in a music shop (suggested merely by rolling an upright piano into the middle of the open pub setting). After a bit of Mendelssohn to prove her chops, Girl -- as she’s called -- has begun playing a melody snatched from the pocket of Guy (no other name, either).

“Falling Slowly” is the soulful, Oscar-winning ballad at the wounded heart of “Once” that helped a $150,000 indie film take in more than $20 million at the box office in 2008.

Like most of the music in this stage adaptation, “Falling Slowly” has never sounded more ethereally resonant. Or more Irish: “Take this sinking boat and point it home,” the song’s narrator urges a distant lover, “you’ve still got time.”

In Tune

As Guy and Girl, Steve Kazee and Cristin Milioti are perfect vocal complements to each other. Whenever they’re joined by the rest of this remarkable ensemble, the music is gorgeous.

A recent Czech emigre to Dublin, Girl encounters Guy just as he has decided to throw in the towel. His girlfriend moved to New York and his music is getting him nowhere, certainly not out of the vacuum-repair shop he runs with his widowed “Da.” Girl is so taken with his songs that she arranges a one-shot, 24-hour recording session to make a demonstration disc.

They fall in love, but she’s still married to the absent father of her little girl and Guy has unfinished business with the woman who left him behind.

This happens to parallel the true story of Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova, who wrote the songs for the movie (and added more for the show). They bristle with desire sublimated by circumstance into art.

Moving On

If you miss it in the East Village, don’t worry: “Once” will surely follow through on plans to move to Broadway by spring. Before then, I hope that book writer Enda Walsh will trim the gratuitous slaps at Josh Groban and “Riverdance.”

Too frequently, the show careers into Tweeland, especially when the otherwise efficient director John Tiffany turns things over to Steven Hoggett, credited with “movement” that resembles a parody of modern dance.

These quibbles are eminently fixable. The inviting pub setting and working-class clothes are by Bob Crowley, the sensuous lighting by Natasha Katz. This is one show where having actors play instruments actually makes sense. “Once” charms us with a rare combination of intelligence, warmth and musicality.

Through Jan. 15, 2012 at 74 E. 4th St. Information: +1-212-279-4200; Rating: ***

What the Stars Mean:
****        Do Not Miss
***         Excellent
**          Good
*           So-So
(No stars)  Avoid

(Jeremy Gerard is the chief U.S. drama for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are their own.)

Jeremy Gerard in New York at

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