Set in Dublin, the new musical Once, which has just opened off-Broadway, emits a whiff of Ireland that is practically as unmistakable as that of Guinness – which is sold at the show’s onstage bar. Among all the Hibernian longings, it is easy to forget that the production, based on the indie-hit 2006 film of the same name, concerns almost equally another country whose leading modern artists have felt the pangs of exile: the Czech Republic.
The character called Girl, whose short, unconsummated love story with an Irish lad named Guy forms the show’s centre, is from that middle-European country. Along with her mother and young daughter, Girl is what the Moravia-born writer Tom Stoppard used to call himself: a bounced Czech. Her artistic seriousness – she plays the piano and knows her Mendelssohn – combines with Guy’s shy, folk-guitar-playing soul to form Once’s highly affecting musical heart.
The songs from the movie, including the Oscar-winning beauty “Falling Slowly”, have been used in the stage adaptation, whose book is by Enda Walsh and whose music and lyrics are by the movie’s famed central couple: Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová. The precise direction is by John Tiffany, of Black Watch fame.
A few characters have been added; of these, my favourite is a Czech drummer, Svec, given shaggy-dog charm by Lucas Papaelias. Steve Kazee and Cristin Milioti portray the leads, with moody understatement, and all the cast of 13 provide musical accompaniment, in family-gathering fashion.
Translation is a central motif in the play: Czech titles are occasionally projected high on Bob Crowley’s apt large-bar-and-smoked-mirrors set, and the English title of a Czech phrase provides a crucial plot revelation. But the most important translation here, of course, is formal. The stage version turns an 85-minute movie into a two-hour-and-twenty-minute musical (plus pre-show entertainment). The result, mostly, does not feel padded, although another jolt or two of high spirits might have aided the pacing. The show’s tasteful modesty cannot conceal the fact that its backers are big-name producers with a Broadway transfer on the brain.
I seriously wonder whether Once would survive a transfer to the tourist-clogged streets of midtown Manhattan: the young romantics who might form its audience sometimes find Broadway prices prohibitive. But these are matters of marketing. All lovers of quiet, lovely music-making should make the trek to New York Theatre Workshop’s East Village home.