BWW Reviews: ONCE Brings Two Worlds and Sounds Together at the Benedum Center
I wish I had made it to the theatre earlier than my usual "ten minutes before curtain" arrival this past Tuesday at the Benedum Center. By the time I walked to my seat, the show was still a good fifteen minutes from beginning in earnest, but the entire cast, simultaneously in character and out of character as a group of Irish and Czech folk musicians, were having a rave-up of a jam session onstage, to the audience's delight. (Yes, Once is "that show where you can go get a drink at the onstage bar" that you may have heard rumors of.) The warmth and heart they put into these classic drinking songs and folk shouters made the show that followed, with its small, intimate tale of ambition and heartache, seem even more real.
Once, based on the movie of the same name, tells the story of an unnamed Guy and Girl, both frustrated songwriters with emotional baggage who meet at an Irish open mic night and begin an unlikely partnership. He's a moody Irish repairman with a broken heart and an ex overseas; she's a plucky but deadpan Czech pianist. As they struggle to work through their music, they also find themselves grappling with their attraction to each other and the inevitable heartbreak that will come if they get too close. This story is told within a loose play-within-a-play structure by an ensemble who serve as a musical Greek Chorus, singing and playing backup vocals from chairs on the side of the stage. The moments in which they step out of their chairs and move, or even dance, with their instruments while playing, thanks to the direction of John Tiffany and choreography of Steve Hoggett, are breathtakingly theatrical.
The Academy Award-winning music in Once, almost entirely by Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova of the band The Swell Season (who both played Guy and Girl in the film version), is phenomenal, a fusion of Irish and Czech folk sounds with modern indie acoustic music. It is, however, extraordinarily ballad-heavy, no doubt due to the fact that the story is about two sad people who write sad music. Thankfully, music supervisor and orchestrator Martin Lowe has countered this by providing extremely energetic orchestrations, and bridging scene changes with uptempo, stomping renditions of the more dour material. The two brief comic relief numbers also make things feel a bit more upbeat, especially the astounding parade of folk-song cliches and bad songwriting, "Abandoned In Bandon." This song, performed by Benjamin Magnuson (Anthony in the John Doyle Sweeney Todd), brought the house down with laughter- it is, after all, only a truly great singer who can be entertaining impersonating a truly bad singer. The book by Enda Walsh also keeps the moments of sadness and melancholy while cushioning them among a large cast of generally hilarious secondary characters.
Among the cast, Stuart Ward is a clear standout as Guy. His expressive, rugged voice and guitar playing are pitch-perfect enough that he never Once seems like an actor merely PLAYING a singer-songwriter. His counterpart, Dani de Wall, is charming, cute and funny, but is clearly secondary to Ward. Her Czech accent wavers in and out, at times becoming too similar to the Irish of the rest of the cast, and her singing voice, while beautiful, is much more traditionally theatrical than it is indie-folk. Despite these minor quibbles, her piano playing is fantastic, and her ability to tread the line between humor and heartbreak in the scenes Girl shares with Guy is commendable. Raymond Bokhour stands out among the dramatic figures for his portrayal of world-weary Da (come early and you'll hear him sing the weepy ballad "Raglan Road" at the jam session), but the comedic characters steal the show. Magnuson's nerdy, needy Bank Manager and Evan Harrington's boorish Billy are balanced nicely by the Czech duo of metal-loving chav Svec and tragicomic loser Andrej, played by Matt DeAngelis and Alex Nee, respectively. The female supporting cast has less to do, but Claire Wellin and Donna Gardner perform their roles with love and rough humor, while providing a solid backbone to many of the musical arrangements. Wellin plays a tiny second role as a bar singer who performs a ridiculous techno version of one of the songs in the show, and this throwaway bit becomes hilarious in her hands.
There is a wonderful monologue in Act 1, in which Girl reminds the Bank Manager of Ireland's great tradition of producing art and culture, especially in music. With Saint Patrick's Day so close, it is all too easy to get lost in the cultural narrative of leprechauns, four-leaf clovers, drunken brawls and other stereotypes, and to forget that the Irish cultural world of today is still producing great music old and new. Instead of hitting the bars and screaming along to The Proclaimers this year, consider stopping in at the Byham, grabbing a drink onstage and hearing old folk and new folk-pop brought to life by talented actors and musicians. You'll definitely laugh, you might cry, but you'll absolutely want to run home and break out that instrument you haven't played in months. I know I did.