Once has been more than once a phenomenon, first as a runaway independent film then as an unlikely Broadway hit winning eight of eleven nominated Tony Awards, including Best Musical. I’ll say it’s a show worth seeing more than once, and I, for one, am going back for more!
Okay, let’s back up. Are you one of those people who don’t like musicals? And is that because 1)”I don’t understand why people just break into song; it’s not “real,” 2) “The sets and costumes are all way too much,” or 3) “I’m just more comfortable having fun with my friends at a bar.” Well, folks, this one’s for you!
It all starts about one half hour before show time when the stage opens up as a bar, or, rather, a pub in Dublin. Audience members mingle with musicians as they order a Guinness or Smithwicks. It sets the atmosphere of a relaxed evening with friends. (See Reason #3)
When the show starts, audience recognize the musician-performers as real people, dressed casually, hanging out, moving the odd furniture around the room to make space for jamming musically. There are no gimmicks, no huge set pieces flown in, no sequins, and no razzle-dazzle. There is something comforting about this and an anti-dote to the over-the-top displays of current high-tech animated films, Superbowl Half-time, Olympics, stadium rock shows and, yes, most dead-ahead Broadway musicals. (See Reason #2)
With the first song, the style and delivery is mostly low key, and we immediately are plunged into the story of a disappointed Irish songwriter who’s about to throw away his dreams until he’s saved by a Czech immigrant living in Dublin who’s struggling to keep hers. They’re musicians, and they form a bond over making music. So, of course they’re going to break into song. (See Reason #1)
It’s Guy’s story, played by Stuart Ward, a man who’s been abandoned by his sweetheart to a life as a “broken hearted Hoover sucker man,” relegated to fix vacuum cleaners and live with his Da above their tiny repair shop. Guy has come to the pub not perhaps intending to sing. He hesitates, apologizes, nearly wanders off, then launches into something so embittered, and stinging, it’s hard to listen to such emotion, and yet it compels a young woman to come in and walk up to him. Ward drives the song with a raw, gritty sound, “You shared what you had to give, now leave!” because he has nowhere else to go. He sings because he can’t do anything else.
There is something very pure about the work, embodied in its most famous, Academy Award winning song, “Falling Slowly,” which the two leads share early in the show. I read somewhere no performer dares monkey around with the expectations of this song. Darn right. It rolls out starting softly and slowly and, like several of the songs of the evening, builds into an anthem with the other musicians on stage joining in. In this as in other songs, performers stand up one by one – for what? For love? For dreams? For pure appreciation of talent? For the beauty and heritage of Ireland’s culture? In its simplicity the song is magically affecting.
The great Irish playwright Enda Walsh has written the book for Once and a surprisingly romantic one at that if you know his other more biting and sardonic works. Here he convinces us in so many ways that there is life and hope in Ireland still and that “on a rock in the middle of the ocean” the miracle continues of birthing many of the world’s greatest writers.
There are so many gifted artists who came together to make this a seamless piece of music-theatre, and yet it all has the feel of coming out of a tight two-into-one vision, that of its originators Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová, and their story now incarnate through the talented Stuart Ward and Dani de Waal. Knowing well the difficult journey of a musical into being with the danger of “too many cooks,” it is itself a miracle that the show has remained so true to its original voice, only spiced with more humor and enriched by some great characterizations in the smaller roles.
Somehow, rightfully, the ensemble as a whole is the star of the stage show. Its members play instruments, sing, dance, move set pieces and props, take on characters, and remain on stage throughout the night as a choric presence to fill the many intimate scenes with their energy. Matt DeAngelis, John Steven Gardner, Evan Harrington, Benjamin Magnuson, Alex Nee, Erica Spyres, Tina Stafford, Erica Swindell, and Scott Waara are vital talents in their own right and together create a kind of love fest with Once.
There is a moment in the second act when four men from the ensemble move center and begin to sing a capella. They cock their heads, listening to each other, relishing fully each moment and chord as the harmonies build and musical timing becomes pure elasticity. Others join in. It’s something that seems so effortless yet it takes both rigor and immense feeling to pull off. Eyes mist on stage and in the audience when during this song artist blends with character blends with audience and lift us all up.
July 7 – August 16
The Kennedy Center, Eisenhower Theatre
2700 F Street, NW
Tuesdays thru Sundays
2 hours, 25 minutes, 1 intermission
Tickets: $65 – $119
Tickets or call 202 467-4600
Bob Crowley designed the stage and costumes, making the main space of the pub serve as a fluid arena where the entire story takes place. Natasha Katz designed the lights to be able to break up and reconfigure even more intimate inner worlds and spaces. Steven Hoggett invented a movement vocabulary for the performers to be able to play instruments, dance, and interact (often simultaneously) while never betraying the grounded reality of the work.
The multi-talented Martin Lowe created orchestrations and supervised the music, allowing the individual voices, textures, and styles to stand out — celtic chanting, traditional Irish tenor singing, tiddle-diddle-dum ballads, rough bar braying, folk ballads, driving folk-rock numbers, and charged ensemble anthems, while weaving together a score that has a wholeness. Like all great makers of music-theatre of any style Lowe knows how to build solo to duet and duet to quartet and on up to big numbers, and there is nuanced richness in the work.
No wonder the members of this creative team took home so many big awards.
Get to the show. You’ll go out humming – and that’s the sign of a lover of musicals! And come early or the party might start without you.
Once . Book by Enda Walsh . Music and Lyrics by Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová . Based on the motion picture written and directed by John Carney . Directed by John Tiffany . Music Supervisor and Orchestrations by Martin Lowe . Produced by The Kennedy Center . Reviewed by Susan Galbraith.