Sometimes, you fall hard on the first date. Maybe the second. But the worst is when you want to love a person badly, but each time you connect, you leave more doubtful and dissatisfied. That’s my unenviable position in regard to Once, the often glorious and inspiring, but also twee and attenuated musical that moved to Broadway after a run downtown at New York Theatre Workshop. The moody, romantic piece is based on the 2006 indie film, and in the transfer from screen to stage, it has gained about 40 minutes, a few extra tunes and a great deal of gratuitous quirk. Many are besottedly serenading Once,but I just can’t.
To be sure, there’s no shortage of talent on the Bernard B. Jacobs stage, where audience members can gather for an informal preshow jam with the cheery, instrument-playing ensemble. The jolly village vibe continues throughout: John Tiffany stages the action in a unit pub set, with cast members watching from the sidelines. It’s a neat concept, but it undercuts the material’s poignant themes of social disconnection and stasis. Still, as the unconsummated lovers, Irish busker Guy and Czech immigrant Girl, Steve Kazee and Cristin Milioti have terrific chemistry. They sing the score’s plangent folk ballads (by the film’s original actor-composers, Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová) with heartbreaking openness.
But for all that, book writer Enda Walsh’s belabored humor, based mostly on lazily sketched supporting characters, begins to grate. And the last half hour’s mopey pacing turns what was wistful understatement into maudlin manipulativeness. There’s simply not enough narrative or emotional content to support a two-act structure. Ironically, if I had spent less time with this fascinating creature, then it might have actually swept me away.—David Cote