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It’s not just that what seems hokey downtown can read quirky in Midtown, where overpriced-ticket buyers tend to prefer familiarity to novelty. True, “Once” — adapted from a wistful low-budget Irish movie about two young songwriters who seem destined to make sweet music together — is exotically modest by the standards of loud, expensively dressed Broadway. But in its new incarnation this musical reveals itself to be a show that was always meant (and probably lusting) for a brighter limelight and a bigger stage. You have to watch out for those shy ones.
In some ways “Once,” which is directed by John Tiffany, has followed a typical route for Broadway musicals, in that it was inspired by a film; and in translating that film to the stage it made the implicit explicit, and the understated overstated. (See “Sister Act” or “Priscilla Queen of the Desert” for corroborating evidence.) I had made the mistake of watching the enchantingly low-key 2006 movie only hours before I first saw the musical downtown. And while there was much I admired in the stage version then, its scaled-up adorability factor got on my nerves.
What annoyed me then — which was mostly inherent in the show’s book, written by the generally terrific playwright Enda Walsh — hasn’t been erased from “Once.” It still has too many lines like “You cannot walk through your life leaving unfinished love behind you.”
But the greater distance between stage and audience that comes with a move to a Broadway house softens the edges of its exaggeration. And what was always wonderful about “Once,” its songs and its staging, has been magnified. In the meantime its appealing stars, Steve Kazee and Cristin Milioti, have only grown in presence and dimensionality. Who would have thought that this soft-spoken little musical would have found itself by raising its voice?