Stuart Ward and Dani de Waal in Once
Before Once starts, the cast lets the audience know that the evening will be filled with energetic performances of soul-stirring music. Before the lights go down on musical's set -- a dark Dublin bar adorned with vintage mirrors -- the ensemble launches into a traditional Irish pub session of folk music and mingles with theater patrons onstage. Unselfconscious performances by a dozen accomplished singers, dancers and musicians feel like an exuberant encore instead of a warm-up. This passion and cohesion helps elevate Once (through Oct. 12 at Overture Hall) from a somewhat facile play with music to a remarkable theatrical experience.
Once is a thin but romantic story about an Irish street musician with a broken heart, played movingly by Stuart Ward. Singing through the despair and longing for an ex-girlfriend who has moved to New York, one day he encounters a quirky Czech girl who is enchanted with his music (the indomitable Dani de Waal). With the determination of a power-of-positive-thinking motivational speaker, she encourages him to keep playing the guitar, share his gift with a larger audience, and reclaim his love. Eventually she gives him the confidence he needs to seize the moment both personally and professionally, and find his way back to happiness.
If that sounds a little saccharine, it's because it is. But it's also a fine vehicle for Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova's music, Steven Hoggett's original and delicate choreography, and the melancholy yet captivating characters de Waal and Ward have created. The show also features the explosive talent of the supporting actors, who do double duty in the show, performing dozens of roles and providing the onstage orchestra for musical numbers.
Once began its life as an independent film based on stories collected by a Dublin busker. Shot on a shoestring budget in only 17 days, it featured musicians with little or no acting experience. Audiences around the world were enchanted by the raw storytelling, the haunting music, and the intimacy and immediacy of the romance between the leads.
Transformed into a Broadway show in 2012 with a reworked script and some additional songs, Once bucks the recent big-budget musical trends of slapping mediocre music onto a story from a blockbuster movie and manufacturing a forced book to present a musical group's catalog of popular songs. That said, the theatrical production does suffer a bit from the change in medium. Moments that were nuanced and rich in the film are covered by broader strokes in the musical. Instead of focusing on the awkwardness of the mismatched pair of musicians and would-be lovers, the play offers funny one-liners, well-traveled ethnic stereotypes, and bits of unnecessary backstory for a host of minor characters. The sexual tension between the Guy and Girl that was so captivating in the movie doesn't translate as well to a large stage.
Yet the impact of the show is much greater than the sum of its parts. Ward and de Waal have voices that soar through solos and blend perfectly to complement each other during duets. The leads' musicianship is evident as they confidently accompany each song on the guitar and piano, and the characters they inhabit are compelling. Together with the talented ensemble, they create stunning music that buoys and punctuates a story of a man pursuing dreams deferred.