All too rarely do I come to a Broadway show with minimal expectations and come away feeling like I experienced something quite magical. Like many others, I saw the minor 2006 indie film upon which this musical was based and liked it. I certainly liked it enough to buy the accompanying soundtrack CD because of that soaring love song the two principals, Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová, performed in the piano shop, "Falling Slowly". It was a lovely scene in a small movie that promptly went into the inner recesses of my fading memory bank. Now six years later comes the Broadway production, which beautifully expands on the film's insular focus on the couple to include a dozen talented musician/actors to provide the core love story much-needed dimension in order to fill the stage for he audience. The same approach also adds dimension to the 2012 original cast recording which thanks to producers Steve Epstein and Martin Lowe, does an excellent job of capturing the liveliness of the show's Dublin pub setting as well as the melancholic attraction between the mismatched, unnamed pair.
Eight of the thirteen songs from the film have been retained, and Lowe's orchestrations build on Hansard's and Irglová's songs with both inventive spirit and becalming restraint. The story is basically the same as the movie - a spunky Czech émigré takes notice of a reticent Irish street musician where she becomes entranced by the passion of his talent. His character's self-penned songs - all written by Hansard and Irglová - reflect the still-broken heart he has over a break-up with a girl who had moved to New York, a circumstance that the girl can relate to as she is a lonely young mother unsure whether she will go back to her husband back in Prague. Their relationship evolves into something deeper and not altogether unexpected. At the same time, it becomes clear that the music they create is what will always bond them regardless of where they go. The centerpiece of the recording is, of course, the Oscar-winning "Falling Slowly", performed first as the semi-spontaneous duet it was in the film version and then reprised at the end to sum up the story with genuine poignancy. Steve Kazee plays the pained street musician/vacuum cleaner repairman. Onstage, he was a revelation as Guy, and he captures the troubadour portion of his performance here with unrelenting passion and power.
As a Kentuckian, Kazee doesn't have Hansard's hangdog brogue or bar-band edge, but he fluently conveys the pain inherent in the now-familiar songs with a purer sense of conviction in a more varied set of arrangements. He manages to lend quiet introspection to "Gold", while his intensely personal versions of "Leave" and "When Your Mind's Made Up" are particularly heartbreaking. More powerfully than Irglová, Cristin Milioti sings in a crystalline Björk-like voice that unexpectedly soars on her spotlight solo numbers, "If You Want Me" and "The Hill". At the same time, she harmonizes quite nicely with Kazee. The additional songs elevate the energy level by bridging key scenes. The harmonies in "Moon" are great and really evoke the pub setting with clarity, as does "Abandoned in Bandon", a minute-long Irish drinking song performed by some of the incidental characters. To highlight the Girl's immediate family, there is even a traditional Czech number, "Ej Pada Pada Rosicka", which adds some much-needed ethnic zest to a score that otherwise relishes its Gaelic spirit. As a whole, the recording is incredibly charming and envelopes the listener like an old friend. It's a true beauty.