BWW Reviews: Go See this Show at ONCE
Okay, that title was an easy one and probably too cute but it's true on a couple of levels. First, ONCE is playing the Orpheum Theatre in Minneapolis just through April 6, so you really have very little time to catch this show. Secondly, it's good and you really need to go see it at once.
Not that it felt that way immediately. The 2007 Academy Award-winning film on which this musical is based was a distant memory that was mostly tinged with a love of the award-winning song, "Falling Slowly," by Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova (who also starred in the film and wrote the show's music and lyrics). The production on stage was different and felt a bit strange and almost too much cut off from the bits of the film filtering through my memory. But like the song says, I was falling slowly into a relationship with the show and it's characters.
This show does not feel like any other Broadway production you've seen on stage. It's spare, with a set that's a standard Irish pub complete with mirrors that actually helped make it possible to view things that would've been missed because of the tall patron in front of me, and few changes of costume, a cast that's also the band and the biggest scene changes involving moving a piano or a drum set on and off the stage, however lyrically.
The cast members are jamming on stage with audience members crowded around them, drinks in hand. Entering the theatre, you're moving into this world in an pub with some blokes plucking out tunes on guitars, mandolines and a concertina. Then slowly the scene shifts and you're watching a lone guitarist playing his heart out on "Leave," which is also meant to be his last song. He's done playing music no one is hearing. His heart has shut down and he's given up. But then a girl enters who has heard his heart in the music, and it's stirred hers to help him get back in touch with his dreams.
The girl encourages Guy to keep playing his music because she wants to hear it. She's cute and quirky. And Guy's intrigued just enough to hear her out, even though he's trying his best to stay angry and alone. She discovers his song and plays the stirring notes on the piano, and he joins in, and this production is right where you want it -- the couple playing a haunting song that stirs the feelings of love that you maybe once had but is now gone. Nearly everyone's had a moment like this -- a fleeting but powerful relationship that touched your life and burned into your memory, perhaps changing you a little along the way. It may be so long ago you don't feel like it's real anymore. But it was real and it was lovely, albeit brief. The beauty of ONCE is how it stirs that feeling in you again.
Stuart Ward, a charming British actor, plays Guy. He's good looking, sings Hansard's songs well and is convincing as a lad that is hurting over a lost love but is pretty easily won over by the eye of a lass that shows interest in him. Dani De Waal is Girl, a young, Czech mother living in Dublin in a flat with her daughter, mother and some mates who reminded me a bit of the cast of "New Girl." Her voice and piano skills are strong; her accent is a bit off at times but she's mostly cute and endearing.
The others in the ensemble are highly talented musicians who can play and move with ease right out and into the next scene without missing a beat. Their constant presence onstage was not distracting but the first few scene changes took a moment to digest -- and then I was able to go with it. Thinking back on the memories of the film, which I recalled to be mostly in the music store, a flat and a recording studio without a lot of action, it occurred to me that this unique staging was a good way to keep the interest and ears of the audience in the world of the wistful, longing show.
Evan Harrington, as Billy, the bloke who owns the music store where Girl goes to tinkle the ivories she cannot afford on her own, is a talented comic who could be seen as too bombastic if handled much heavier. But Harrington and his light touch keep you laughing and enjoying breaks from the lost love and heartache that weighs the show down in a good way the rest of the time.
Guy and Girl flirt with love throughout the evening but ultimately are both lead back to their senses by reality and responsibility. They finish what they never started. But Girl's interest, and her love, and their music, lead Guy out of the dark place he got lost in and help him see a light to move towards in the future. And Guy's reawakening and growing up opened Girl up to her own relationship with the father of her child and her responsibility to them. In the span of a week, they both changed the other forever, and left one another with something that will become fainter with time until a song stirs the memory of it in their hearts again for another fleeting moment.
The immediate standing ovation (almost requisite for Minneapolis audiences nowadays) felt more like a collective sigh as memories and hearts were stirred by the song that was ONCE brought us back for that flicker of time, and it was lovely.
Tickets for ONCE are available at the box office, www.hennepintheatretrust.org or 1-800-982-2787.