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Theater Review: 'Once' -- 4 stars

Steve Kazee, left, and Cristin Molioti star in

Steve Kazee, left, and Cristin Molioti star in “Once.” (Joan Marcus) Credit: Steve Kazee, left, and Cristin Molioti star in “Once.” (Joan Marcus)

4 stars

Even before it started Off-Broadway previews, word was already spreading that "Once," a new musical adapted from the 2006 film about a depressed singer-songwriter whose life is changed by an upbeat girl who believes in his talent, would transfer to Broadway.

This show - which retains the film's Dublin setting, low-key style and romantic sentimentality while fleshing out its story and adding humor - definitely has the potential to be a very popular hit.

The film, which was shot on a very small budget and premiered at Sundance, went on to do strong business and win the Independent Spirit Award for Best Foreign Film and an Oscar for the song "Falling Slowly." Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová, who starred in the film, also wrote all its songs.

It begins with a young Irish male (generically named Guy, played by Steve Kazee) singing and playing guitar on the street. By chance, he is discovered by Girl (Cristin Molioti), a young Czech immigrant, pianist and single mother.

Girl convinces Guy, who is still recovering from a breakup, to get a bank loan to record an album. And while their relationship remains celibate, they are clearly in love. Kazee convincingly conveys Guy's fragility, while Molioti brings an irresistible energy and spirit to her part.

The entire 12-member cast plays instruments such as guitar, banjo, violin and cello. When the audience enters the theater, they are already onstage inhabiting the pub setting and playing music.

The bulk of John Tiffany's intimate production observes the delicate, unexpectedly celibate relationship between Guy and Girl. The rest of the cast always remains onstage, and their group movement can be extraordinarily beautiful.

Whereas the film ran a breezy 90 minutes, the stage version lasts about an hour longer and often moves too slowly. Nevertheless, this remains an extremely touching boy-meets-girl love story full of heartfelt and catchy soft-rock songs.

If you go: "Once" plays at the New York Theatre Workshop through Jan. 15. 79 E. Fourth St., 212-460-5475,

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