Story: A dark, brooding Irish musician is at an unpleasant crossroads in his life. His girlfriend left Dublin six months ago for New York City, and he’s been carrying the torch for her ever since.
He’s written a couple of songs about her that he plays on his guitar, but his musical career, such as it is, is languishing, so he makes a living fixing vacuum cleaners in his dad’s shop. And, since his mother’s death a year earlier, he and his father have moved from their former home into tiny quarters above the shop.
One night at a local pub the “Guy” meets a “Girl,” a Czech immigrant who sells flowers by day and plays the piano for passion, something her father taught her before he killed himself. Girl is as cheerful and upbeat as Guy is morose and taciturn, and these opposites quickly are attracted to each other.
Like Guy, though, Girl has a past and it’s not something she is willing to shake off easily. With her encouragement, though, Guy puts together a ragtag band and makes an audition CD for a Dublin record producer. Girl believes that Guy has a talent for writing heartfelt songs that speak not only to his former girlfriend but to a more universal audience. Will her faith be rewarded?
Highlights: You’re likely never to have seen anything quite like Once, which opened Tuesday, April 9 at The Fox Theatre for a two-week engagement. This is the first touring company for the multiple Tony Award-winning show, which debuted on Broadway two years ago and is still going strong.
From the moment you walk into the auditorium, you know that something unusual is transpiring. The set for Once is a Dublin pub, where patrons are encouraged to saunter onto the stage and mingle with the performers before the show even begins. They’re also treated to a selection of Irish folk songs and dance tunes that display the talents of the dozen adult players who comprise the cast of Once. And that’s just the prelude.
Other Info: Truth is, that pre-show concert is one of the highlights of the entire evening. The joyful camaraderie and foot-tapping music brought to the fore before the lights go down is only sporadically realized during the show itself, which has more ballads than one might want after that rousing introduction.
Still, the singular “movement,” as it’s called, by Steven Hoggett, is constantly unexpected and invigorating, the heart and soul of this scaled-down musical. The dozen adult performers, who double as actors and musicians, keep an audience transfixed with Hoggett’s syncopated moves which are expressed in myriad, delightful ways.
Scene changes, e.g., are handled deftly as players move set pieces to ‘make’ a bedroom, or a bank office, or a recording studio in the simplest of fashions. With the seemingly makeshift choreography, it all looks and sounds magical, whether players are jumping onto the bar, dancing on a row of tables or taking seats at either side of the bar/stage, where they sit when not at the center of the action.
Music and lyrics are written by Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova, who wrote the music for the 2007 film on which this musical is based, including the Oscar-winning tune, Falling Slowly. The book for the 2012 Tony Award winner for Best Musical is by Irish playwright Enda Walsh, based on John Carney’s screenplay and direction of the movie.
Crisply directed by John Tiffany, Once features the sensational voice of Dani de Waal as Girl, whose beautifully pure soprano soars on a number of slow, somber ballads. While the book can too often descend into predictability, the story is just strong enough to weave an interesting tale between the tunes.
Stuart Ward as Guy displays fine chemistry opposite de Waal’s Girl, conveying Guy’s loneliness and awkwardness as he feels himself drawn towards the much more self-confident Girl who revitalizes his spirits.
The large supporting cast is comprised of musicians who can play a mean fiddle, drum up a fierce beat, tunefully pluck a banjo or a mandolin, display finesse on an accordion or a concertina, artfully strum a ukulele or caress a cello and even find the right moments for a melodica or harmonica.
They include Raymond Bokhour as Da, Benjamn Magnuson as the Bank Manager, Erica Swindell as the Ex-Girlfriend, Evan Harrington as Billy the blustery bar owner, Ryan Link as the MC at an open mic night, John Steven Gardner as Guy’s friend Eamon, and Matt DeAngelis, Donna Garner, Alex Nee, Claire Wellin and young Kolette Tetlow as Girl’s Czech family.
Bob Crowley’s scenic design shrewdly utilizes that bar setting with an array of mirrors in the background and chairs that line the perimeter, and his costumes offer a pronounced difference in the look of the Irish and Czech characters. Stephen Gabis provides dialect coaching, Natasha Katz carefully addresses lighting, Clive Goodwin is responsible for sound design and Martin Lowe brings an expert touch to music supervision and orchestrations.
Whether you’re looking at Czech subtitles as Girl’s family speaks in English (with one poignant exception), watching a trio of musicians step in unison or observe a dozen characters standing in seeming isolation from each other, Once is consistently innovative and inventive. One might prefer more up-tempo numbers and a less syrupy script in parts, but there’s no disputing the unique soul of Once.
Company: Touring Company
Venue: Fox Theatre, 527 North Grand Blvd.
Dates: Through April 20
Tickets: $25-$66; contact 534-1111 or metrotix.com
Rating: A 4.5 on a scale of 1-to-5.
Photos courtesy of Joan Marcus