Wednesday, December 7, 2011

NYC Theater Roundup: Was ‘Once’ Enough?

Book by Enda Walsh; music and lyrics by Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová
Directed by John Tiffany
Starring Steve Kazee, Cristin Miloti
Previews began November 15, 2011; opened December 6; closes January 1, 2012
New York Theater Workshop, 79 East 4th Street, New York, NY

An Evening with Patti Lupone and Mandy Patinkin
Directed by Mandy Patinkin
Previews began November 16, 2011; opened November 21; closes January 13, 2012
Barrymore Theatre, 243 West 47th Street, New York, NY Kazee and Milioti as Guy and Girl in Once (photo by Joan Marcus)
A bona fide cult hit, the 2006 movie Once was a modest, unassuming romance that hinged on its stars’ freshness: two unknowns parlayed their shared love of music and, soon enough, each other into an Oscar-winning song and spin-off concert tour.

I wasn’t a big fan of the movie, which evaporated from my memory after it ended, mainly because the characters (Glen Hansard played Guy and Marketa Irglova played Girl) weren’t memorable and neither were their songs, Oscar notwithstanding. Still, Once is the perfect candidate for stage musical adaptation: it’s a superficial romance with recognizable songs. The stage result, now off Broadway and already announced to transfer to Broadway in February, is as flimsy as the screen original.

The story is simplicity (or simplemindedness) itself: Irish Guy meets Czech Girl, Guy plays his songs for Girl, Guy kind of falls for Girl (and she for him). This basically plotless romance has been gussied up in Enda Walsh’s book with performers who not only enact secondary characters--Guy’s Da, Girl’s Czech roommates, mother and young daughter--but also play instruments like a cello, fiddles and guitars. That conceit, borrowed from John Doyle’s actors-playing-instruments Sweeney Todd, works more handily here since those onstage are playing musicians anyway.

Director John Tiffany and choreographer/movement director Steven Hoggett try their damndest to keep this basically immobile story moving. The cast of a dozen, when not sitting on stools at either side of the stage, is in constant motion, jumping up and walking on the large curved bar that sits at center stage (Bob Crowley’s remarkable set also contains 61 mirrors on the wall, a clever bit of conjuring an Irish pub atmosphere) or moving in synchronization during several meandering musical numbers.

Although the tired music is the least memorable thing about Once--the songs are either acoustic or piano-based drones with fortune-cookie lyrics, including the Oscar-winning “Falling Slowly”--Martin Lowe’s arrangements include lovely blocks of harmony that the dozen performers bellow with conviction and emotion. With Steve Kazee’s handsome and charming Guy and Cristin Milioti’s oddly endearing Girl at its center, this 2-½ hour slog is tolerable if not terribly memorable. Patinkin and Lupone, together again (photo by Joan Marcus)
A reunion of old friends makes An Evening with Patti Lupone and Mandy Patinkin endearing. Best known for starring in Evita for its 1979 Broadway premiere, Lupone and Patinkin revisit that show’s showstoppers (his “Oh What a Clown,” her “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina,” of course), and if their voices are not as rich as they once were--especially his--they get by on sheer emotion.

The two-hour performance, heavy on Stephen Sondheim numbers, begins with “Another Hundred People” and includes a bizarre duet of his “Loving You” and her “Getting Married Today,” the ultimate patter song that she easily tosses off. There’s also a nice Merrily We Roll Along medley, but the show’s centerpiece is Rodgers and Hammerstein: there are mini-groupings from both South Pacific and Carousel, in which they overact the dialogue but do well by the songs themselves, which culminate with a rousing “You’ll Never Walk Alone.”

The question needs asking: do we need Cliff’s Notes versions of our greatest musicals? Probably not, but standalone triumphs like Lupone’s Gypsy showstopper “Everything’s Coming Up Roses” work despite not having the necessary orchestral power behind the singers: pianist Paul Ford and bassist John Beal, who acquit themselves admirably, give the show an intimate nightclub quality. Or at least as intimate as a 1,000-seat theater can be. But it’s Patti and Mandy’s mutual admiration and affection that make this a treat.

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