When the lovely and low-key Irish indie Once first hit movie theaters in 2006, it was a warm and welcome addition to the year’s typical fare, like a shot of Bailey’s in your coffee. The new Off Broadway musical version — already set to transfer to Broadway this spring — tries to capture that same glowing spirit and lived-in quality, and it more or less succeeds. The creative team incorporates the Oscar-winning soundtrack by Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová into the stage performance with verve, easily enhancing each song, and the supporting cast is thoroughly fleshed out. But the transfer seems to have also highlighted the story’s more cornball elements.
The plot is simple boy meets girl, more specifically heartbroken Irish boy (Steve Kazee) meets headstrong Czech girl (Cristin Milioti). They spend the bulk of the musical dancing around the very obvious issue of their mutual attraction, making music and excuses instead of making love. Kazee and Milioti are both charming, although they come off as less authentic in their roles than their movie counterparts, perhaps because Hansard and Irglová were playing versions of themselves. But theater also naturally has greater trouble conveying nuance and minor emotions, which is why certain elements that were touching and underplayed on screen become somewhat mawkish and obvious when blown up on the stage.
Still, the production’s sheer energy makes up for much of the soppiness. When a musical number comes around, the entire cast picks themselves up off the sidelines, grab an instrument and start playing and singing and stomping (there is no separate orchestra or band). It’s invigorating and brings a pulsing life to some very good songs. Additionally, peripheral characters like the girl’s family — including a terse Eastern European mother and two amusing brothers with mini-narratives of their own — are given more to do. They aren’t necessarily complex figures — more winsomely one-or-two-note — but there are enough of them to help guide the story along and make the audience laugh occasionally.
Playwright Enda Walsh’s book has a few great lines sprinkled throughout, and director John Tiffany turns one sequence in particular — set atop a seaside escarpment — into a magical stage moment. Plus, it’s still got plenty of charm, even if that charm is more of the general rom-com variety than the quiet, independent soul of the film. But if there’s one thing the last 10 years of theater have taught us, it’s that musicals are not the movies they’re based on. B
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