Once: Once Again I am Alone

Another movie gets a screen to stage makeover and the result is a guilty pleasure bittersweet romance that left me a little disappointed.  Based on the John Carney movie, Once is the story of a Dublin street musician, Guy, at the end of his musical rope who is encouraged by an immigrant Czech girl, Girl, to believe in his music and himself again.  Using the same music and lyrics from the movie music, the stage adaptation by Enda Walsh stays faithful to the movie's story.  It is directed by John Tiffany and choreographed by Steven Hoggett. 

I wanted to both hate and love Once.  I wanted to hate it because I feel like the underlying material is paper thin and has had so many various opportunities already (first it was a movie, then the "actors" toured with the band they formed and then there was the documentary of the band's tour, and now here is the musical version of the same material in the movie).  I wanted to love Once because there were so many talented people involved in the adaptation and I had high hopes that they would take a thin piece of material and enrich it.

Somehow the final result fell between love and hate for me.  It is a bittersweet love story that delivers exactly what the movie delivered and sadly not much more.  If you liked the movie and all it's trappings, you're golden.  If you were hoping/expecting more (me), you'll be disappointed. 

I think my expectations here were too high.  I've seen a couple of productions directed by John Tiffany including his amazingly dark and creepy Peter Pan in London (wish that had transferred) and the powerful Black Watch in Brooklyn.  I've also seen a couple of shows choreographed by Steven Hoggett including Black Watch and Beautiful Burnout.  And recently I saw Enda Walsh's Misterman which was soul-rattling.  A lot of really talented, visionary creative artists were involved in this adaptation.   All of which raised my expectations that this work would be more than just the movie on stage.

They use all the same music from the movie.  I didn't identify any new pieces (though it is possible there were one or two but it all sounded exactly like the film's soundtrack to mine ears).  And it's a wee story about a guy and girl meeting, falling in love, and life getting in the way of love.  99% of the emotional content of Once the movie was provided by the music (don't get me started on movies where the director's musical crutch covers up all the holes in the actual film-- see also Garden State).  I mean turn off the soundtrack and watch that movie.  It would be unwatchable.  I think it serves the same purpose here, though the stage voices are better.

The movie music is certainly mournful and folk-catchy but it doesn't move a lot along on stage.  It provides an emotional outlet for Guy and Girl in a few scenes but otherwise it's a guy standing around serenading with a guitar.  Although there are some nice moments of choreography in Once, the main songs sung by Steve Kazee were largely stationary ballads with him just standing around with his guitar.  It felt like when the cast stopped moving, so did the show. 

When they used Hoggett's choreography, the show had real energy but I wanted more of it.  Let me be clear I generally hate dance.  I struggle to find the "narrative" for the most part in dance pieces.  What I like about Hoggett is how his use of movement supports and enhances the narrative.  I didn't see American Idiot (Sorry AI fans) but Beautiful Burnout which Hoggett was the co-director of used movement so well.  I didn't think the story and book of Beautiful Burnout was very strong but what was there was largely accomplished through the staging and movement.  Black Watch has one particular sequence where costumes and movement tell an epic story of the history of the military unit.  There is no question that Hoggett is incredibly talented and when used well accomplishes a lot.  I felt he was under-used here.

I wasn't totally sold on the staging with the "band" being on the fringe of the set most of the show and then doing double duty as the supporting cast (bad flashbacks to John Doyle productions came to mind).  As for the cast, Kazee is adorable and much more attractive than Glen Hansard from the original film.  He has a great voice and sings the hell out of the songs.  But when he stops singing, he has an incredibly passive role.  This might be more a complaint about the role rather than the actor but it felt very slight and one-note.  He did not have a lot to do between songs.  I wanted to like him.  Did I believe he pined for Girl?  Yes.  Did I believe she loved Guy?  Yes.  But did it piss me off that all he did was stand there looking hang-dog & adorable for 2.5 hours.  Yes, it did.

Cristin Miloti has the showier role as Girl, since she is driving the narrative and the relationship.  She's the catalyst for all the changes in his life.  She gets to be more outwardly quirky and vocal.  She's the one weaving the fairy tale and it is clear what tale she is weaving for Guy.  But how she fits in and what tale she hopes for herself is a lot more opaque.  She is more of an enigma in the stage version and I think the story suffers for it.

It is easy to just ride along with this show and enjoy the romance and the music.  I just thought with the talent behind this production I was going to see a standout show that was truly magical.