Saturday, July 6, 2013

Once More, With Feeling

'Pretty durned good' is not meant to be a put-down. Yet for Once, the darling of critics and the Tonys, I can't help but feel a little disappointment. The ads promised transcendent, romantic rapture. What I got instead was a mostly rote tale of masculinity crisis, vigorous life by enormous talent. Not life-changing, but pretty durned good.

The story, adapted from a well-received indie film written and directed by John Carney, concerns a Dublin musician, Guy (Arthur Darvill), who's despondent over the departure of his girl to the New York City, and the resulting anguish in performing the repertoire of songs he had written about her. Enter Girl (Joanna Christie), a Czech immigrant who takes an interest in his music (and vacuum-repairing skills) and before long has  him booked in a recording studio to lay down a demo and potentially break out of his dreary routine and live life to the fullest.

The scenario, in its broad strokes, is a variation on what is now the well-worn Manic Pixie Dream Girl vehicle: sensitive nice guy is in the middle of an existential crisis, and in comes a quirky, life-affirming lady who exists solely in relation to him to help him realize his true inner potential. Girl here is not quite so simple: we see her at home among her family, and we learn that she has a daughter, and a husband. In perhaps the biggest departure from the trope, she doesn't end up with the boy, only helps him to follow and try to rekindle the magic with his former paramour. Yet Girl still feels like an adjunct to Guy's story; her daughter is a prop, not even a proper plot device, and it remains unclear what her stake in all of this is, and why she would be so intensely focused getting Guy straightened out (though it does help that, again, his musical skills are phenomenal). She feels secondary, which is fine in a story of about guy finding his footing, but suspect in a show whose promotional photos constantly show the two characters together. This is very much his story, not theirs.

The show would not be nearly the success it is were the rest of its elements not absolutely top-shelf. John Tiffany's direction creates an intimate environment within its pub interior set, having the cast all onstage at the top of the show jamming on old folk standards, and with drinks being served at the bar during intermission.  And the one time the staging does break out from the bar setting, in which the two leads stand up above it all, looking over Dublin, is both totally unexpected, and absolutely, brilliantly logical. Tiffany is immeasurably aided by Natasha Katz' lighting, deftly used not just to create moods but also delineate the playing spaces of a scene, and Steven Hoggett's choreography, which keep the sometimes subdued music and potentially momentum-halting scene changes lively.

Above all the show lives and dies by its music (supervised and orchestrated by Martin Lowe), which here operates a little differently than normal. Being a musical about musicians, the numbers are (mostly) not stylized renditions of a characters' inner turmoil or conflicts, but actual songs that the characters themselves are performing. In the wrong hands this could be disastrous, a creaky plot functioning as a skeleton on which to hang some tunes. Which it still sort of is, except the music itself is really quite wonderful. It's deceptively simple soft folk-rock, but with craft and texture applied to the composition and lyrics--Mumford and Sons-styled bellyaching, it ain't. It's performed by a cast/orchestra (when they're not playing secondary characters, the other actors are doubling as the show's musicians) with nary a weak link. It is a joy to listen to. The songs's emotional impact is boosted by the fact that they are often (in the story) being used as proxies for how the characters are feeling, such that the way they are played and sung is more important than what's being sung. This is just as well, as the story, at least as presented here, is not rich enough on which a traditional music-and-lyrics score could hang.

Make no mistake, the book is never bad, but nor is it as deep as it wants to be--the characters are, if there is such a thing, stock quirk: the banker who likes to play music, the bar owner who wants to get laid, the self-described "serious" Czech girl. The actors give these types considerably more life than exists on the page, as does the music, and the outstanding direction. Thus does Once find itself in an awkward position of being better than it is on paper, yet not as good as it's been in the papers.

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