Sometimes, a break from Broadway brass and bombast is a good thing. No one savors glitz and a Merman-esque belt more than this critic, but the still power and poise of Once may make you re-think the idea that a musical must either be runaway high-energy or a spectacle of some sort.
Once disarms you with its haunting folk-pop music, musicianship and the emotional pull of this not-quite love story.
Based on the 2007 indie movie—a Millennials update of Brief Encounter—Once tells the rueful star-crossed story of Guy (Stuart Ward), a Dublin street musician, and Girl (Dani de Waal), a lonely young Czech woman. Guy is ablaze with talent, but burned out on life and love after his girlfriend leaves him for new possibilities in America.
Guy and Girl meet cute—he repairs Hoovers (vacuum cleaners) and she just happens to have one handy—and soon discover a connection with music. Guy is about to toss it all away and sink into bitterness, but after encountering the pixie-like pushiness of Girl, his passion for music is reawakened.
Soon, the love songs he wrote for another woman take on new resonance with Girl. However, Once contains the most aching plot device since Edward cast his gilded laser gaze on Bella in the Twilight series—The Love That Cannot Be.
No inter-species canoodling here, mind you. Although their attraction to each other is rich and palpable, Girl is married and has a child and she senses that a large part of Guy’s heart still belongs to his lost lover. So scorching glances and near-touches suffice—and give the musical a gauzy, romantic yearning—as the pair express in music what they won’t say out loud.
And what music it is. The score by Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova (the stars of the movie) features raw-edged, plaintive songs that get to the core of what it feels like to be loved and misunderstood, to be living out of time, to be ruled by tentativeness and fear. Yes, the song “Falling Slowly,” an Oscar winner, is not only included, but sung twice, but there are other aural gems as well—“If You Want Me,” “The Hill,” “Sleeping” and “Gold,” to name a few.
Ward plays a mean guitar and sings like a Gaelic rock god, while de Waal is quirky and ethereal in that Bjork sort of way but formidable on the piano—an instrument so beloved to Girl that she insists you whisper a reverential “hello” before sitting down at the keys. They are joined by ten crackerjack performers who pull off a trifecta of singing, dancing and playing instruments, among them the banjo, ukulele, mandolin, bass, accordion, drums, violin and concertina.
The cast pulls off this plainspoken magic in a set by Bob Crowley that is a semi-circle rendering of an Irish pub so cozily authentic that audience members are invited up on stage for a drink and a tune before the show and during intermission.
There are some hiccups in the move from screen to stage. Exposition that seems harmless in a movie makes the musical drag in spots and the endless moving of furniture around for set changes seems more repetitious than poetic. The characters from the movie have been fleshed out by playwright Enda Walsh, sometimes disconcertedly so, as some wear their supposedly endearing eccentricities like a message on a t-shirt. Guy gets an upgrade from a nerd to a handsome, confident devil and the Girl goes from cinematic flower seller to a mysterious, angelic savior.
Closes September 14, 2014
France-Merrick Performing Arts Center- Hippodrome
12 North Eutaw Street Baltimore
1 hour, no intermission
Tickets: $38 – $140
Thursday thru Sunday
The movement by Steve Hoggett, with it ritualistic repetition, recalls the hypnotic choreography by Bill T. Jones in Spring Awakening but here it appears to be performed half-heartedly and not with an abundance of conviction.
And some of the purplish dialogue would give E. L. James pause. The music is so direct and unadorned, but some of the lines about affirming life and taking a chance on love are sappy and overwrought to the point where the songs and the sentimentality seem to cancel each other out.
These lapses are mercifully brief as Once is prone to break into song at any given moment. Music is where this show finds its unique and disarming timbre, just as the songs Guy and Girl sing to each other give voice to what they hide in their hearts.