(Review by Tulis McCall)
Brilliant! Brilliant! Brilliant! This is one of those shows that remind you: magic is real.
Based on the movie of the same name Once is the story of a Guy (Steve Kazee) who has been spit out of life’s party and has landed hard on the sidewalk, where he plays his songs for Dubliners passing by. Girl (Cristin Milioti) is one of the passers by who does not pass by. Instead she stops and listens to this man’s heart as well as his music. Both, she concludes, need tending to. And “Once Upon a Time” begins.
Actually the whole shebang begins before it begins. When you enter the theatre you are encouraged to go up onto the stage and buy a drink that you can take to your seat. On stage is most of the cast, all musicians as well, who are busy entertaining themselves mostly. They sing sea songs and drinking songs – some acapella, some with instruments. Their voices are strong and true, and it was all I could do not to join in.
Once the audience clears off the stage, the story unfurls seamlessly, and we are off to the races.
We follow the Guy and Girl for the few days they have together. As we follow we enter the spell that this cast weaves. We meet the man who sells musical instruments and lets the Girl play his piano at her convenience. We learn that the Guy has lost his love who moved to New York. We meet the Girl’s family and roommates. We meet her daughter and find out the husband is far away. They Guy gives the Girl a CD of his music, and when she finds out that it lacks lyrics she decides that they will create a demo together so that the Guy can follow his true love and the Girl can have some freedom of her own.
Of course they fall for one another, but this is an Irish opera, so of course it will not work out. There is too much caché in melancholy. And more importantly, it is this kind of a sweet and unfulfilled love that we all know so it touches each of us. Happily ever after is a wished for dream. The sweet lost loves are grounded in fact for everyone.
These two share their music and the journey to get where the Girl has determined they will go. They charm a bank manager into a loan. The Guy performs in public for the first time. They assemble a motley band that is completely oil and water until they run out of reasons not to listen to the music.
The entire cast is onstage throughout, singing, playing an instrument (most play more than one) or listening to their cast members. Props float in and out of a scene. Scenes roll over into one another. The choral movement is choreographed with style and grace.
There are great swaths of silence woven into this piece, but there is not one empty moment. This is a surfeit of riches that never overwhelms. This is a feast that satisfies in every way. This is an event that elevates the performers and the audience to that place where theatre is reduced to its purest form: an outward and visible sign of the inward and invisible spark that is life itself.
And at the end we, the audience, stood, because we had no choice - some primal electricity had been sent out from the stage and we rose as one to honor that.
This show is going to Broadway – go see it at New York Theatre Workshop where it is close enough to touch.
"Gently appealing new musical."
Ben Brantley for New York Times
"Rapturously tender and touching musical."
Joe Dziemianowicz for New York Daily News
"Unabashedly romantic, funny, passionate and sad."
Elisabeth Vincentelli for New York Post
"Intimate and immediate."
Clifford Lee Johnson III for Back Stage
"Very slight, but sweet and sometimes charming."
Robert Feldberg for The Record
"There’s some special theater magic happening in 'Once.' ... We are reminded of theater’s singular capacity to enchant and transport us."
David Rooney for The Hollywood Reporter
Steven Suskin for Variety
External links to full reviews from popular press...