Review: Once the Musical – Original Broadway Production

I’ll admit, I was a bit hesitant about this particular musical. I have never really been a huge fan of musicals that were based off of straight movies (Catch Me If You Can, Legally Blonde, Ghost, Shrek, Footloose), moreso if the movie never really had songs in them except for background. However, once in a while there would be a musical that is based off a movie that I may be willing enough to see (State Fair, The Bodyguard, Newsies) mainly because in a way those movies were seemingly made for musical theatre. Once on the other hand teetered at a knife’s edge for me. I wasn’t entirely sure what to make of it or how it would be staged, so when a co-blogger of mine from got tix to see Once the Musical, I went… with reservations.

Walking into the theater, you automatically realize that this particular show is not going to be like anything you’ve seen before. Think of it this way, when you’re first walking into the Jacobs Theatre the atmosphere is festive, joyous and at first you think it’s music playing in the house. However, it’s not coming from the speakers and it’s not a record, instead you to the stage and realize that the cast is actually doing a kind of pre-show for the audience… a warm-up act if you will. Not only that, but those audience members sitting up in front or even if they have time to run to the stage are allowed to come on stage and join the cast! I haven’t seen or heard anything like it.

You see right away the minimal set design, which is a bar of sorts that is wrapped around in a semi-circle with two sets of doors going either upstage left or upstage right. There were chairs lined up against the walls at the far stage left and stage right, which later turned out to be where exiting cast members would sit and watch the action.

Which brings me to the cast, the entire cast not only has to act, and sing, and dance, but they ALSO double as the orchestra! No triple threat here, every cast member could be considered a quadruple threat with several cast members playing multiple instruments. You have Steve Kazee (or in the performance that I went to the role of Guy was filled by Ben Hope) playing guitar, Cristin Milioti playing piano, up to three violinists (one of whom is played by Best Performance by a Featured Actress in a Musical nominee Elizabeth A Davis as Reza the Czech roommate of Girl), cello, ukulele, electric bass, banjo, mandolin, harmonica, drums, and even accordian! Imagine dancing around whilst carrying a cello… Andy Taylor needs to be given props for that. I thought seeing the Newsies ensemble was an amazing experience, well I need to eat my words because this ensemble worked efficiently, effectively as a tight knit singular unit.

When it was announced that Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová would not be eligible to be nominated for Best Score, I was shocked because the music was so incredibly beautiful, until I really looked into the songs and realized that the majority of the songs in the musical were from the original movie soundtrack. The songs that were added into the production “The Moon” and “Sleeping” were from one of their other albums: The Swell Season. “Abandoned in Bandon” was composed by Martin Lowe, Andy Taylor (cast) and Edna Walsh (book). (Side note: As of this writing it is unknown whether “North Strand” and “Ej, Pada, Pada, Rosicka” were written just for the musical or were they written prior to that and were adapted for the show.) As thus since the majority of the score was adapted from pieces that were created prior to the show and there weren’t enough additional / new material written specifically for the musical production, it makes some sense that Once the Musical would not be considered for Best Score.

As my friend and I made our way to our seats, it did come to my attention that if there is a pre-show going on, how would the actual musical begin? It could happen in the traditional way with an Opening Number, or orchestrations. Instead one of the ensemble members asked around for someone that was willing to play the next song and a guy comes onstage and says that he would and opens with “Leave”, as he continues with his piece the house lights start to dim and you know that this singular, heart wrenching song was the opening piece to the show and would lead the audience into a journey of life, love, and the transformative power of music.

Unlike other musicals where you have insanely choreographed dance sequences that are fun to watch and takes a lot of technical skill to achieve, here in Once the Musical, the choreographers / movement directors had the added difficulty in that the cast may also be playing their instruments whilst on stage. Most of the choreography isn’t of the traditional dance sense, but more movement, smooth, simple, elegant. Movement that didn’t detract from the music or the singing, but movement that somehow enhances the overall performance.

There were moments of comedy, typically brought on by the majority of the supporting cast, but the two leads were the heart and soul of the story. When the stage lights dim and all you see are Guy and Girl standing high above the bar to emulate being close by the shore, you see sparkles of starlight reflected upon the floor of the bar and for a moment you forget that it’s a bar, let alone the stage.

The ambiance and the atmosphere from start to finish had enough variety to keep you interested and the music, cast, story pulls you into the performance to keep you to the edge of your seat. Even if you have already seen the film, seeing this musical adaptation of the movie is well worth the price of admission. This is not your typical theatre production in a vast variety of aspects and arenas, to me that is more than enough to keep me fascinated.

The only really negative thing about the show that I was able to discern is the performance of Ben Hope, although he did a fabulous job acting, and singing. His performance being pretty close to spot on, his Irish accent seemed to come in and out at times. Not enough to deter one from the show, but enough to be a momentary distraction. Granted being able to stay within the accent takes time and practice (lots of it), but this is something that my friend and I felt was lacking amongst the sea of positives.

It was just announced on May 1st that Once the Musical received eleven Tony Awards Nominations!
– Best Musical
– Best Performance by a Leading Actor in a Musical: Steve Kazee
– Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Musical: Cristin Milioti
– Best Performance by a Featured Actress in a Musical: Elizabeth A. Davis
– Best Director of a Musical: John Tiffany
– Best Choreography: Steven Hoggett
– Best Book
– Best Orchestrations
– Best Scenic Design of a Musical: Bob Crowley
– Best Lighting Design of a Musical: Natasha Katz
– Best Sound Design of a Musical: Clive Goodwin

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