BWW Reviews: Broadway's Outstanding ONCE Kicks Off National Tour at PPAC
There is no denying that the transition from film to musical can be a tricky one. It's likely even trickier when the film was a small-budget, minimalist piece, with only two main characters and a fairly somber, melancholy tone. It helps, though, when the film includes amazing, award-winning music, which will translate perfectly to the stage.
In this case, the movie is Once, an Irish musical/film which was released in 2007, became an indie darling and then went on to become a major mainstream success. That success included an Independent Spirit Award for Best Foreign Film and an Academy Award for Best Original Song. Made for around $150,000 and shot in seventeen days, it went on to gross twenty million dollars worldwide and earned critical raves. It was then developed as a musical at the American Repertory Theater in Boston and eventually worked its way to Broadway, where it opened in 2012, winning that year's Tony Award for Best Musical.
Once tells the story of a struggling Irish musician in modern-day Dublin. He is struggling, still trying to get over his girlfriend's departure to America, and contemplating the end of his musical career. Everything changes for this young man, known only as "Guy," when he meets a quirky, unique, energetic young woman, known as "Girl," who basically demands that he keep writing and playing his music. She soon convinces him to record his music and go to America to follow his former love. During their time together, though, they find what may perhaps be the truest love of their lives, with each other.
In some fundamental ways, the musical is, of course, much different from the movie. The movie is small in scale, highly intimate, very focused on only the two lead characters, and has a tone that is somber, even sad at times. Much of the movie's tone and feel cannot really be translated into a big Broadway musical, at least not one that's going to be popular with general audiences. So, the musical takes everything up a notch. All aspects of the story are bigger, brighter, funnier, more prominent and, if you will, more theatrical. While purist fans of the movie may scoff at some of what goes on in the musical, the creative team behind the stage production knew what they were doing. They have crafted a uniformly excellent piece of musical theater.
For this production, they hae also brought together a completely brilliant and wonderfully talented cast. Leading the way is Stuart Ward as Guy. He has a masterful touch with a guitar and a beautiful voice to go along with it. His talents don't stop at singing and playing though, as he's able to truthfully convey all of the complex emotions his character goes through. As his muse and inspiration, Girl, Dani De Waal is equally talented. She has a stunning voice, which really came through during her solo numbers, especially the second act's "The Hill." When Ward and De Waal join forces to sing the show's signature song, "Falling Slowly," they make such beautiful music together, it will send a shiver up your spine.
All of their cast-mates are a joy to watch onstage, from their individual comic acting moments to the amazing music they create, each with their own string instrument. Benjamin Magnuson as the Bank Manager and Evan Harrington as Billy are standouts, but that's mainly because they are given slightly more to do. Both are hilarious and get to do some major scene stealing. Erica Swindell deserves mention as well, just for the fact that she does it all, acting, singing, playing the violin and performing the duties of dance captain.
Every member of the company is also part of the musical accompaniment and the music they make is fantastic. Dominated by string instruments, the actors all play something, including mandolin, guitar, accordion, ukulele, banjo, cello and electric bass, among others. Scene changes and transitions are filled with music and there seems to be some kind of wonderful music being played all the time. Once is as much a show about the love of music as it is about the love between two people.
This production, set to head out on a national tour, also features a stunning set, which at first blush is just the interior of an Irish pub. That interior quickly and efficiently becomes the interior of every other location, as actors move furniture and set pieces on and off to help create the illusions. Perfectly executed lighting tricks also help to define and create different spaces and locations. There's also a wonderful moment, maybe the show's best moment of all, that takes place on top of the set, as the two main characters stand on a hilltop, looking down at the twinkling lights of the town. It's a perfect piece of theater magic.