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March 23, 2012

TT: The little musical that should

In today's Wall Street Journal I join the chorus of critical praise for the Broadway transfer of Once, followed by a few short, sharp words about Jesus Christ Superstar. Here's an excerpt.

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The deck is stacked against "Once." Though the posters call it a musical, this starless stage version of the 2006 indie-flick sleeper is actually a play with songs, and it has moved from a 198-seat downtown performance space to a 1,078-seat Broadway house. That's way too big for a plot-driven single-set show whose appeal is rooted in its directness and charm. To do "Once" at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre is like doing "The Fantasticks" in Madison Square Garden.

ONCE%20PHOTO.jpgNever mind all that. Go anyway.

"Once" is the most touching new musical to come to Broadway since "The Light in the Piazza" opened there in 2005, and it deserves to be a hit. Sure, it belongs Off Broadway, but if you don't see it now, you won't get to see Cristin Milioti, who is giving the kind of performance that in a just world would do for her what "Venus in Fur" did for Nina Arianda. What she does in "Once" would be worth seeing even if the show were less good than it is....

Ms. Milioti, who made a splash two years ago in the U.S. premiere of Polly Stenham's "That Face," is something else again, a slight, huge-eyed young woman who grabs and holds your attention from the moment she walks on the stage. While nothing she does is exaggerated, she somehow gives the impression of standing in an invisible spotlight, which is a pretty fair working definition of star quality. Her singing is fragile but fetching, her Czech accent completely convincing, and she's even a halfway decent piano player....

"Jesus Christ Superstar," in which Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice set the Passion to ersatz rock and roll, has one thing in common with "Once": It's not a musical. Billed as a "rock opera" when it was first recorded in 1970, it's really, like the Who's "Tommy," an oratorio, an evening-long sequence of musical numbers with no connecting dialogue or recitative. To stage it is thus an exercise in dramatic futility, and since the songs are synthetic Top-40 gimcracks that already sounded dated when they were new, the only way to make "Jesus Christ Superstar" "work" in the theater is to hose on the gloss, shovel on the glitz and buff until banal, which is just what Des McAnuff, the director of the new Broadway revival, has done....

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Read the whole thing here.

Posted March 23, 2012 12:00 AM

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