BWW Reviews: ONCE Is Worth Seeing Twice
Once, the 2012 Tony Award winner for Best musical, is one of the most nontraditional musicals to come along in quite some time. Based on the Academy Award winning film of the same name, Once opened on Broadway in 2012 to strong reviews and the momentum continued to build to a Tony win and the launching of a national tour. Once played in Des Moines last week and, based upon the reception, will be welcome back anytime in the future.
Once can be framed in a traditional sense as a boy meets girl story, but what unfolds after the meeting is an organic, human story of love, life, and the choices we make. What makes Once unique is that the story is portrayed in a realistic manner rarely seen in Broadway musicals.The design of Once is spectacular and the storyline is expertly carried out by a talented cast of actor/musicians who remain onstage throughout the show providing vocal and instrumental backing. Once is unlike any show you have ever seen.
Set in Dublin, Once tells the story of a struggling musician who is ready to give up his dream when a young woman suddenly takes an interest in his music. Instead of playing out in traditional musical style wherein destiny brings them together and they live happily ever after for it is the way of musical theater, their relationship is held at bay by each other's past. The struggle is beautifully evoked by the music of Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová. Hansard and Irglová starred in the film version of Once and their quiet, haunting melodies work surprisingly well on the stage. "Gold," which closes the first act, is powerful, melodic and extremely resonant. Different than some musicals, the songs do not serve to advance the action. Rather, the songs give an unvarnished glimpse into the heart of the character.
One of the most striking characteristics of Once is the single set design. The set is spectacularly intimate because, though the story shifts locations, the creators of Once made the decision to keep the set constant: a traditional Irish pub. Only minor prop changes, such as bringing in a table or piano, occur with a scene change. Instead, the dialogue makes the change clear enough that the audience is swiftly pulled along. The pub setting is made more appealing by the fact that the walls are hung with dozens of mirrors. The focal point of the pub is a large mirror that hangs in the center of the pub. Through this mirror, the audience is granted a view of what would normally not be visible, so that even when an actor's back is to the audience the emotion on the actors' faces can still be read and felt. The mirrors underscore one of the major themes of the show: reflection. Personal reflection is at the heart of the relationship between Guy and Girl. Their connection forces both to reconsider the past and set a course for the future. The audience is granted reflections just the same as Guy and Girl, who because of their new bond must look at themselves in the mirror and confront the person looking back at them.
Sets and story aside, a show structured in the way Once is structured would go nowhere without a talented cast. The entire ensemble of the national tour cast is fabulous. All of the supporting members are fantastic. In particular, Evan Harrington, as Billy, has excellent comedic timing; he gives the audience many welcome moments of release in this otherwise quiet show. Stuart Ward as Guy and Dani De Waal as Girl bring genuine emotion and expressiveness to their respective roles. It nearly goes without saying that both are talented instrumentalists, after all, the show depends on their guitar and piano playing. But their vocal and acting abilities are just as strong. Ward portrays Guy as a rather brooding chap, but when emotion takes over, Ward capably displays Guy's vulnerability. De Waal is the standout in the cast. She brings contrasting innocence and complexity to Girl and the humor and emotion has tremendous authenticity.
All elements considered, Once magnificently blends heart, humor and music. The sweet story and amazingly talented cast will make you want to see Once at least twice.