Once Is Not Enough: The Insufficiency of Once

And the disappointment of Mike Daisey

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Steve Kazee and Cristin Milioti in 'Once.' (Photo by Joan Marcus)

Before reckoning with the new, exceedingly lovely, and disappointingly thin Broadway musical Once, which opened Sunday night at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre, let us first discuss what might be called the War Horse Insufficiency.

The symptoms of this malady are stunning stagecraft and a lack of compelling story or emotional richness, a visual display so creative and impressive that the theatergoer wants to believe the play or musical he’s seeing to be great, but with a book insufficient to live up to the production. War Horse, the British story of a boy and his beloved horse at the Vivian Beaumont, is its most prominent current example: gorgeous design, breathtaking puppetry, insipid story.

Once, which offers pretty, tuneful indie-folk songs, nontraditional, dynamic staging and choreography, and a series of smart, witty directorial flourishes, alas suffers from the War Horse Insufficiency. Everything about it is lovely; nothing about it is moving.

The story of two mildly depressed musicians in Dublin whose lives are changed by a weeklong romance, Once began its life as a 2006 Irish independent film that became a sleeper hit and won the Oscar for Best Original Song. Transformed into a stage musical by the director John Tiffany and choreographer Steven Hoggett, it was an off-Broadway success at New York Theater Workshop in the fall, leading to its current Broadway engagement.

Messrs. Tiffany and Hoggett are the team behind Black Watch, the fascinating and stunning  retelling of the history of a Scottish army regiment disbanded in 2006 after hundreds of years of history and recent service in the Iraq war. (Mr. Hoggett has also choreographed the angst-ridden pop-punk musical American Idiot and the gleefully silly Peter and the Starcatcher.) When it came to St. Ann’s Warehouse in 2007, Black Watch was a powerful production, both as a document of the war’s impact on the men fighting it and as a piece of stagecraft, integrating live action and video projections with highly choreographed movements that propelled their story forward.

In Once, Messrs. Tiffany and Hoggett again use innovative and interesting movement to help tell their story, and they do it on a welcoming Irish publike set by Bob Crowley that serves with little embellishment as the various settings of the play—a musical-instrument store, a vacuum-repair shop and so on. The actors in the play are also its musicians, and they sit with their instruments along the sides of the pub set when they’re not in a scene. As the audience enters, these musicians are jamming on stage; during intermission, audience members are invited to cross the footlights and order drinks from what is transformed into a real bar. The effect is to render the play, somewhat magically, as a tale told among friends over drinks, something that happened once.

It’s acted and sung by a splendid cast led by Steve Kazee as the Guy, as he’s called in the cast of characters, a sad, brooding, guitar-slinging songwriter living with his father above the family shop and left heartbroken by a girl who’s moved to New York, and Cristin Milioti as the Girl, serious and also sad, a Czech immigrant with a young daughter, an estranged husband and an abiding love of the piano. Individually, together or backed by supporting players from the group, they sound terrific singing and playing the songs written by Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová, who starred in the initial film.

But for all these lovely performance elements, Once doesn’t succeed in elevating itself from an interesting evening into an engaging one. Its book, adapted by Enda Walsh from John Carney’s screenplay, never succeeds in making either of its protagonists human or compelling, in making you care about them. The Guy is a passive cipher, the Girl a collection of quirks. This makes their affair an intellectual exercise, rather than a passionate pairing. For the audience, there is no connection, no engagement.

It’s pretty to watch, but, for a romance, insufficient.

At least twice during his new show, the virtuoso monologist Mike Daisey refers to himself as an actor. Twice more, he calls himself a storyteller. He is of course both things, but the descriptors miss the true impact of what he has accomplished in his powerful piece The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, which opened Monday night at the Public Theater. As much as he is a performer, Mr. Daisey is also an investigative journalist, even, in the best sense, a muckraker.” —The Observer, reviewing that show, Oct. 24, 2011.