BWW Review: ONCE Wears Its Heart on Its Sleeve

BWW Review: ONCE Wears Its Heart on Its Sleeve


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, Movement by Steven Hoggett; Scenic and Costume Design, Bob Crowley; Lighting Design, Natasha Katz; Sound Design, Clive Goodwin; Dialect Coach, Stephen Gabis; Production Stage Manager, Daniel S. Rosokoff

CAST (in alphabetical order): Raymond Bokhour, Dani De Waal, Matt DeAngelis, John Steven Gardner, Donna Garner, Evan Harrington, RYan Link, Benjamin Magnuson, Alex Nee, Erica Swindell, Kolette Tetlow, Stuart Ward, Claire Wellin

Performances through January 19, Lexus Broadway in Boston at Boston Opera House, 539 Washington Street, Boston, MA; Box Office 866-523-7469 or

Once upon a time, a beloved little independent film became a Broadway musical, went on to win eight 2012 Tony Awards (including Best Musical) and countless hearts, and embarked on a national tour to share the love with the rest of America. The success of Once is a testament to the universality of its story about a Dublin street musician whose chance meeting with a beautiful Czech immigrant salvages his dream of bringing his songs of love and loss to a wider audience while finding his heart and soul. Originally developed at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Once returns home as part of the Lexus Broadway in Boston series at the Boston Opera House.

In 2007, the Irish film introduced Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová as Guy and Girl in their autobiographical story of two musicians (with a lot of emotional baggage) in Dublin. While repairing vacuum cleaners in his father's shop to make a living, Guy lives to express himself with his own songs and his guitar. When Girl comes along and hears him sing, he is drowning in self-pity and ready to give up on his music on the heels of his girlfriend's departure for New York. Girl recognizes his talent and reignites the spark that allows him to reclaim the joy of making music, while awakening her own dormant desires. Over the course of one intense and glorious week, they change each other's lives with the help of friends, family, love, and music.

The team of Tony Award-winning Director John Tiffany, Playwright Enda Walsh, Music Supervisor/Orchestrator Martin Lowe, and Choreographer Steven Hoggett reconstructed the framework of the movie, bringing the play into a pub setting (Bob Crowley, Scenic and Costume Design) where the focus on making music feels organic. Tiffany's staging, the set, and the lighting (Natasha Katz) are unusual and combine to create a sense that the whole theater is absorbed into the action of the play. In addition to Guy (Stuart Ward) on guitar and Girl (Dani De Waal) on piano, all of the actors play at least one instrument (some play as many as five) and remain on the sidelines of the stage whenever they are not involved in a scene. They also serve as stagehands, moving furnishings on and off as needed to represent other locales. Not only is it quick and efficient, but it also allows the ensemble to maintain a presence with the audience, building on the pre-show connection established when audience members are allowed onstage to grab a drink at the bar and mingle with the actors. With a cast of thirteen who sometimes move around as if they are pieces in a shell game, having them always in view definitely helps to keep The Players straight.

Although the story is slender, the relationships are laden and the music conveys most of Once's emotional content. The result is good news/bad news because Hansard and Irglová infuse their songs with passion and intensity, but they are mostly sad and angst-ridden. The exceptions are a musical number by Girl's Czech family members that is exuberant ("Ej, Pada, Pada, Rosicka") and Guy's homage to country music ("Broken Hearted Hoover Fixer Sucker Guy") which is light-hearted and fun, but all too brief. Three or four songs from the film have been jettisoned, while four or five new ones have been added and the placement of others altered. Most notably, Guy sings "Leave" at the top of the first act to set the emotional tone for his character, and the Oscar-winning Best Original Song "Falling Slowly" is given a reprise as the finale.

Ward and de Waal are riveting and well-matched. He is forlorn until he picks up his guitar and can play his broken heart out, breaking strings (at least twice on opening night) with his impassioned, dervish-like strumming, and emitting primal wails of anger and loneliness. At other times, he is lighthearted and boyishly shy as Guy and Girl become closer. She is a force to be reckoned with, taking a no-nonsense stance with him at the outset. Seated at the piano, she becomes a different person; all of her pent-up emotions pour out in the beauty of her voice and her caress of the keys, most poignantly in "The Hill."

Both leads blend seamlessly with the talented ensemble. Evan Harrington (Billy) lends some humor as the blustery music store owner who has a thing for Girl, and a nod to local product Matt DeAngelis (Švec) who contributes on guitar, mandolin, banjo, drum set, and percussion. Girl's extended family includes her accordion-playing mother Baruška (Donna Garner), Andrej (Alex Nee), violinist Réza (Claire Wellin), and daughter Ivanka (Kolette Tetlow). Guy's circle includes Raymond Bokhour (Da) on the mandolin, cellist Benjamin Magnuson, violinist Erica Swindell, five-instrument man John Steven Gardner, and RYan Link (guitar, banjo). And if the simultaneous acting and playing musical instruments isn't enough for you, they also negotiate Hoggett's movement while toting those instruments around.

Once is about going after your dreams and the power of music to connect us; like the film before it, the musical is an example of that pursuit, relying heavily on the songs to communicate its message. However, it is a mixed message. The heartbreak is palpable and unrelenting, almost maudlin, exceeding the release and fulfillment the characters derive from making music. It makes it hard to accept the implication that things will turn out satisfactorily, but one would hope the suffering will end and love will rule the day.

Photo credit: Joan Marcus (Once Tour Company)

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Nancy Grossman From producing and starring in family holiday pageants as a child, to avid member of Broadway Across America and Show of the Month Club, Nancy has cultivated her love of the art and respect for the craft of theatre. She fulfilled a dream when she became an adult-onset tap dancer in the early 90's ("Gotta dance!"); she fulfills another by providing reviews for and evolving as a freelance writer. Nancy is an alumna of Syracuse University and a retired Probation Officer-in-Charge in the Massachusetts Trial Court system.


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