Since opening on Broadway on March 18, “Once” has been quietly thrumming with an undercurrent of critical praise. In the spring influx of Tony Award contenders, this one’s underhyped and easy to lose sight of — but don’t. The show feels like it has a there-and-then-it’s-gone specialness that makes a fraternity of those who catch it in its prime. It’s reminiscent of the sensuous “Brief Encounter” of 2010, hinting at a more fantastical reality just beneath the surface of everyday engagements.
Fans of the movie will like the way that the play amplifies the story while delving more into the side characters and themes. Those who haven’t seen it don’t need any cues to pick up the plot onstage; in fact, they may be spoiled for the film if they expect it to be as robust as the live production. For everyone else, it’s a matter of how much you like salty-yet-saccharine ingenues with a heft of quirk (think “Amelie”). A lot of your attachment to the romance will come from your immediate impression of Cristin Milioti, who’s different from archetype Marketa Irglova in that she’s more pronounced — as is the classically handsome Steve Kazee from Glen Hansard, though they’re arguably closer in kind. Not the sort to auto-swoon for a boy-meets-girl storyline? Instead embrace the haunting, heartbreaking melodies and two new songs. Plus, one surprising character adds just the right dash of cynicism to get you laughing at your own reluctance to give life a break — and let it give you one, too.
Arrive early for a preshow performance from this hardworking cast. They stay in sight throughout to play instruments, dance, sing and act to propel the plot. Their succinct, stylized choreography helps establish that the couple can only thrive thanks to the culture, camaraderie and circumstances coalescing around them at just the right time.
The broad stage suffers no shortage of intimacy. Step right up onto the charming pub set during intermission to grab a drink, but don’t expect Dublin prices — shelling out $13 for a beer will bring you straight back to the business end of Broadway and jar the trance of enchantment you’ll remember having had once.
Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre
242 W. 45th St.