BWW Reviews: ONCE's Absorbing Love Story Rocks the Pantages
Based on the 2007 film of the same name, the musical Once which won 8 2012 Tony Awards, is a uniquely staged and tender love story quite unlike what's out there. Now onstage through August 10 at the Pantages, Once is ingeniously created by book writer Enda Walsh and musical composers Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova, It assuredly boasts singular direction/staging by John Tiffany and a jewel of a cast.
Once...once in a lifetime, the one true possibility for fulfillment... Do you grab on or do you let it go in favor of unfinished business?
Well...this is no ordinary love story. It unfolds in a contemporary Dublin bar, where Guy, an Irish vacuum repairman/busker (street musician) (Stuart Ward) and Girl, a Czech pianist (Dani de Waal) meet for the first time. She is attracted to his uncanny talent as a musician, and since she needs to have a vacuum cleaner fixed, arranges to trade musical accompaniment for the repair job. He is sadly about to give up on the music business, as he works for his Da (Raymond Bokhour), a lonely but somewhat steady gig. Girl has a daughter Ivanka (Kolette Tetlow) and a mother Baruska (Donna Garner) to look after, as her husband has left her and returned to Czechoslovakia. But she never gives up on her marriage. Guy's girlfriend has left him and moved to New York to pursue the music dream. When Girl hears the beautiful music they have created, she realizes that he must still be in love with her, so refuses to allow any 'hanky-panky' between them, even though she loves Guy more than life itself. Hardly your typical love story filled with sexual bliss, Once does not put its lovers under the sheets but instead looks at the big picture and makes career/life choices the priority. Girl is willing to sacrifice so that Guy will excel. Brilliant playwright Enda Walsh zeros in on the cultural isolation of Dublin's racially mixed artists - from every walk of life -and how they struggle to survive, with a mere dream, a glimmering hope of something better. Within Ireland's borders fear comes at a high price, stifling permanently one's chances for success. So, it's get out, or succomb! There appears to be less pain, suffering and desolation in Once than in his play New Electric Ballroom. Nonetheless, he makes us care deeply for the plight of both protagonists and to root for their good fortune ... even if they go their separate ways. The reality of Once offers no easy roads.
Tiffany's staging is a fascination in itself, with audience members invited onstage before the show and during intermission to drink at the bar. Actors also comprise the band, playing instruments from the sidelines when not involved in a scene and moving props and set pieces in between scenes with electric speed and efficiency. The mirrors surrounding the set walls allow audience to view the reflection of the actors, as they sing and interact centerstage. It's like viewing life as art, the real and the ideal. Hansard and Irglova's songs are uniquely passionate whether beautifully restrained or discordant, with the ballads deeply affecting. "Falling Slowly", the Oscar winning Best Song from the 2007 film remains the key tune. Walsh's characters are supposedly based on the real life relationship of Hansard and Irglova.
Ward and de Waal are serenely riveting and win our hearts at every turn. Ward has a tremendously skilled and memorable vocal instrument; de Waal's portrayal of Girl's simultaneous delicacy and strength is staggering. The other 11 actors/musicians that include Bokhour, Garner - fierce female portrayal - Tetlow, Matt DeAngelis, John Steven Gardner, Evan Harrington - a comic standout as stubborn pub owner Billy, Ryan Link, Benjamin Magnuson - another standout as the bright but musically untalented bank manager, Alex Nee, Erica Swindell and Claire Wellin all bring finesse and expert musicianship to the proceedings making this a true ensemble effort.
Bob Crowley's sets and folksy costumes, Natasha Katz's dark lighting design and Clive Goodwin's vibrant sound are all top notch, with the set winning first prize. Steven Hoggett's movement is excellent as is Martin Lowe's musical supervision.
It does help to have some Irish in your blood to enjoy Once, but even if you don't, the musical has a universal charm and appeal. Full of endearing wit and genuine love - and to top it off with lovely music - how much more perfect can it get? No small wonder that Once is taking home a pack of awards everywhere it plays.