NEW YORK — Once upon a time, they made a little indie movie for $150,000 about an Irish street musician and a Czech flower-seller in Dublin. Its breezy, improvisational feel, pleasing folk-pop songs and melancholy romance touched the hearts of countless fans, and it raked in $20 million.
As if that weren't enough, the movie's two stars and composers, 18 years apart, fell in love during filming, adding to the lore. Oh, and they won the 2007 original song Oscar for the hypnotic "Falling Slowly," bringing many to tears once again with their moving acceptance speeches.
That Cinderella of a movie was, of course, "Once," now being lovingly revived at off-Broadway's New York Theatre Workshop – and will make the leap to Broadway next year – for eager audiences, many of whom fell for the film – not slowly, but fast – and are ready to fall yet again.
How these fans will feel about the inevitable story adjustments the creative team has made in the production that opened Tuesday remains an open and subjective question. How faithful does a film-to-stage adaptation need to be? Discuss.
But one thing is clear: The sweetness, the charm, and the deceptively addictive songs by Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova are all still there, ready as ever to claim the heart.
Add to that some lovely, original staging by director John Tiffany and choreographer Steven Hoggett (both of whom were behind the terrific "Black Watch" from the National Theatre of Scotland), not to mention excellent orchestrations by Martin Lowe.
The inventiveness of the staging hits you even before the play starts. Walking into the theater, you confront a stage full of musicians – they are also the acting ensemble – playing Irish tunes in a tavern. There are fiddlers (a couple of the best-looking ones you've ever seen), a bassist, a piano player, people drumming on cabinets. It's loud and lusty and joyful, and you can join in onstage – the tavern's bar is ready to serve you real drinks.
Now for a quick story recap, if you haven't seen the film (and we're not judging, but seriously, what were you doing a few years back that you couldn't spare 88 minutes?) The main characters are Guy and Girl. He's a Hoover vacuum cleaner repairman who sings in the streets in his spare time. She's a Czech immigrant who sells flowers by day, cares for a young daughter at night, and grabs precious minutes to play the piano at a music store.
They are brought together by a love for music and a slowly burning attraction, with personal lives full of obstacles to their romance. Over a short period, they transport each other to a different place, emotionally and professionally, and one of the story's nicest elements is its refusal to tie things up neatly at the end.
In the film, Guy was played by the red-haired, gravelly voiced Hansard, Girl by the winsome and soft-spoken Irglova (only 17 at the time.) Neither had acting experience, and many scenes were improvised to fit loosely around the songs.
That freewheeling feel is almost impossible to recreate on a stage – particularly when the production is aimed eventually at a much larger one, on Broadway – and wisely, the creators aren't really trying to do that. And so the scenes (the book is by playwright Enda Walsh) are more structured, and snappier.
It's also hard to recreate characters who are loved, especially as, in this case, the original leads infused much of their own personalities into the roles. The production confronts the problem by not mimicking the originals. Cristin Milioti as Girl, particularly, gives the role a much feistier, zingier, sometimes comic dimension. (Milioti, who has a beautiful singing voice, has said she purposely didn't see the film when she got the role, to avoid imitating Irglova.)
As Guy, Steve Kazee has a terrific voice as well, much more theatrical – understandably – than Hansard's, and the matinee idol looks to go with it.
The more significant departure from the film is an emphasis on comedy, with the addition or enhancement of several characters for that purpose. Billy, for example, is the music store owner – a character barely seen in the film – and here he's an oafish, lovable giant type, with lots of corny Irish humor thrown his way, not to mention some broad physical comedy that occasionally threatens to overshadow the play's subtler charms.
Other comic characters include a bank officer with a (really bad) song in his heart, and a bunch of kooky flatmates for Girl, who comically learn English from a soap opera and later become the backup band as Guy and Girl embark on a mammoth recording session.
"Once" lovers will know how the story ends, but we won't spoil it for those who don't. Except to say that of all the songs in the show, some from the film and some not, none resonate with more power and simple emotion than "Falling Slowly."
And so, as first Guy begins a reprise of the song, then Girl joins in, and then the entire ensemble, you're probably not falling slowly by that point. Swept up in the music, you're probably just gone.