‘Once’ Review: Cast Album Not the Real Swell Season, But An Incredible Simulation

The bitter edge of Glen Hansard’s voice is missing in otherwise lovely Broadway cast covers of tunes from the indie film hit “Once”

“Once” was not enough, as a movie. So a Broadway adaptation of the 2006 film officially opens next week, preceded by a soundtrack that has a pair of actors stepping into the vocal parts created so indelibly on screen by the duo the Swell Season.

But is the new release a cast recording, covers album, or both?

It’s a bit disconcerting, if you’re a fan of Glen Hansard — the auteur behind the Swell Season as well as the Irish band the Frames — to hear a seasoned and inevitably slicker thespian take over what amounted to nearly a full album’s worth of Hansard lead vocals. Whatever other concessions have been made for the theater, this “score” still consists primarily of one guy (or “Guy,” as his character is listed in the credits) performing contemporary singer/songwriter material, with and without the harmonizing of a female lead.

Diehard rockists will inevitably approach the “Once” cast album as something along the lines of “Swell Season Mania — not the real Swell Season, but an incredible simulation!”

But Steve Kazee, the male lead, at least has no problem duplicating Hansard’s vocal fluency and fluidity, effortlessly gliding from a conversational tone to yearning falsetto, even if he inevitably lacks the Irish rocker’s edge. There’s not very wide of a line to toe between trying too hard to sound like an authentically gritty troubadour and turning these ballads into overly polished show tunes, but Kazee walks it about as well as any pro could.

Still, one of the most remarkable things about Hansard’s voice, and what made him such a remarkable screen presence in the movie, is the undercurrent of feisty bitterness he brings to songs that might otherwise be too sweet. There’s a world of hurt in Hansard’s singing, and he only has to hint at it. You don’t hear any of that anger in Kazee’s interpretations, just sheer, melodious yearning. Which, maybe, is enough.

The female lead doesn’t have as much to do, and when we did hear Hansard’s partner, Czech-born Marketa Irglova, singing lead parts in the movie, there was a beautiful inscrutability to her voice that perfectly befit the sometimes mysterious motivations of a character who momentarily holds the purse strings on the hero’s heart. On the cast album, Cristin Milioti has a much more knowing quality to her voice, which puts a slightly different, equally valid spin on the material.

The songs you know and love from repeat home-video viewings are here, including, of course, “Falling Slowly,” just about the only Best Song Oscar winner from the last 30 years that anybody can remember or much cares to.

What isn’t here, alas, is any fresh Hansard material. The two “new” tracks are a traditional Czech number, which adds some much-needed ethnic zest to a score that otherwise relishes its languor, and “Abandoned in Bandon,” a minute-long Irish drinking song performed by some incidental characters in the play’s pub setting.

Maybe Hansard was asked to contribute new songs and declined, but it seems more likely that the show’s producers felt show-goers would just be pleased to hear those 6-year-old tunes in a live setting. From all reports, the show has been opened up in other aspects, with more attention to supporting characters. So it’s a shame that when it came to the music, everyone fell prey to the “recreate the movie” syndrome common to stage adaptations instead of hiring Hansard to add something fresh.

If you’re either naïve or willfully amnesiac enough to approach “Once’s” song score as an original one, you’ll be suitably impressed. If you're a fan who's already given these songs the once-over many times over, you’ll hear the album for what it is: almost swell.