BWW Reviews: Tony-Winning ONCE Makes Stirring OC Debut

BWW Reviews: Tony-Winning ONCE Makes Stirring OC Debut

What a difference a good screen-to-stage adaptation makes.

Just a few weeks ago, Orange County's Segerstrom Center for the Arts played host to the national tour of GHOST, the musical stage version of the 1990 box office hit that won two of its five Oscar nominations. The resulting theatrical adaptation was a flashy but laughable folly.

Fast forward a few weeks and in comes the national tour of ONCE - THE MUSICAL, yet another stage show whose origins are rooted in the cinema. This time around, though, the end product---at least this one---is a lovely testimonial that justifies the otherwise unstoppable trend of mining the movies for new material for Broadway musicals.

Emotionally stirring and beautifully staged, the eight-time Tony award-winning musical---featuring a book by Enda Walsh and music and lyrics by Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová---continues performances at Segerstrom Hall in Costa Mesa through August 31.

Based on the similarly-titled 2007 independent film, ONCE tells the naturalistic story of a chance meeting between two people in emotional flux---two starving artists stuck in their seemingly inescapable ruts waiting for a jolt of creative fulfillment. Though romantic feelings do come into play (somewhat), the pair is electrified more by the excitement of finding another like-minded individual that shares the same passionate love for music---which serves as a more palatable conduit for their internalized feelings.

Subtle and, at times, molasses-slow in execution---yet ultimately powerful in impact---ONCE is a soul-searing musical that interchanges romantic entanglement for creative fulfillment---and how the line that separates these emotions are often blurred. Sure, on the surface, it's an eye-roll-inducing conceit for cynical hearts to buy into, but somehow, ONCE really makes it work---and makes this central relationship engaging to watch unfold.

There's an oft repeated cliché that says that certain people come in and out of our lives for a specific purpose, and in this case, the timing for the meet-cute of the story's main couple couldn't have been more fortuitous.

In what appears to be an open-mic night at a local Dublin bar, a handsome yet morose-looking "Guy" (played by Alex Nee on Opening Night)---a lapsed aspiring musician who by day works as a vacuum cleaner repairman in his dad's small humble shop---sings an emotionally-stirring, self-penned song for the gathered crowd. The deeply personal song, punctuated by longing and anger, mesmerizes a lovely young Czech "Girl" (Dani de Waal) who has been listening, rapt, in the audience.

BWW Reviews: Tony-Winning ONCE Makes Stirring OC Debut

When the song ends, the Guy slams his guitar down in its case and starts to walk out of the bar, obviously distraught by the feelings that have surfaced during his heartfelt performance. But the Girl stops him, then proceeds to interrogate him with direct, sometimes amusingly unfiltered personal questions.

She instantly recognizes that the song is about a former lover, an assumption he eventually confirms both audibly and with his body language. The ex-girlfriend, now living in New York to pursue her dreams, has caused so much deep-seated pain that he has vowed to give up on his musical aspirations completely.

But the Girl ain't having it.

As luck would have it, after learning that he's a "Hoover fixer," she tells him that she happens to have a broken vacuum that "does not suck" and that he must fix it. As payment for the repair, she will happily play piano for him---a not so subtle hint that she wants to hear more.

Despite continuous refusals, Guy eventually surrenders to his bossy new acquaintance's demands---particularly after she yanks some sheet music away from him. With him on guitar and her on piano, the two duet on the song together ("Falling Slowly" the heart-wrenching Oscar-winning song from the movie). Elated by the song, the Girl thinks the tune is just the ticket he needs to win his ex-girlfriend back.

Thus begins the pair's romantic flirtation-slash-creative collaboration. Remarkably, the two certainly act like two people in the beginning stages of a romantic relationship.

Because he technically owes her a vacuum repair after their impromptu duet, the two whisk off to his father's shop where he fixes her machine while she charms his father (Raymond Bokhour). Later, the Guy gets enough nerve to invite the Girl upstairs to his tiny bedroom in the flat he shares with his dad above the shop.

With the mood set while cramped in such claustrophobic quarters, he tries kissing her, but she rejects his advances and leaves in a huff, accusing him of using their shared love of (his) music as an excuse to have sex (she later adorably refers to it as "hanky panky").

But the "anger" is short-lived; he apologizes the next day and the two continue their musical collaboration, which includes a song that features her own original lyrics---the first hint that she too is developing romantic feelings for him.

For her part, she brings him to her home to meet her family---her live-in mother (Donna Garner) and, surprise, her young daughter Ivanka (Kolette Tetlow). The ladies also sometimes play host to a few neighbor Czech guys (and in a cheeky 180-degree about-face from the film, their foreign language conversations are heard in English but are translated via projected super-titles in Czech).

Utterly convinced of his talent and their creative output, the Girl arranges a sit-down with a banker (Benjamin Magnuson) to secure a sizable loan that will hopefully finance a weekend studio recording session for the Guy's demo album. Luckily for them, their loan officer is a sucker for fellow artists, even offering himself up as a cellist for their band after he approves their request.

BWW Reviews: Tony-Winning ONCE Makes Stirring OC Debut

With funding secured, the Girl also rounds up a diverse set of neighborhood musicians for their ad-hoc band which include Billy (scene-stealer Evan Harrington), the loud-mouth owner of the music store where the Girl sometimes rehearses (who is also harboring a crazy crush on the Girl), and wife-beater-clad drummer Svec (Matt DeAngelis) who prefers hard rocking beats to emotionally-introspective music.

And with song after song, it becomes clearer and clearer that the subject of the Guy's compositions are no longer inspired by the woman that originally broke his heart. Cue sighs.

Overall, ONCE - THE MUSICAL---though essentially faithful to the original source material for the most part---still feels like a fresh, wholly original new stage musical, free of distracting special effects and stage trickery, but filled to the brim with pluck and heart. The real beauty of ONCE is, surprisingly, in its slow-burn subtlety, allowing for a seemingly free-flow structure that suggests its musical interludes are merely spontaneous outbursts---the uncontainable busting out of emotions that our protagonists can no longer suppress.

Directed by John Tiffany with "movement" devised by Steven Hoggett, the stage adaptation departs from the film's laser focus on the main, nameless couple by expanding the scope of what musical collaboration can produce: a sense of community and inclusiveness. Artistic expression is a sharable experience, even if you start with just one muse.

So, sure, the stage adaptation retains much of the low-rent independent film spirit of the original excellent movie, but it amps up the presence (or, rather, the subtle non-presence) of a supporting cast of characters that glide in and out of the action as necessary, playing double-duty throughout the show by being members of the show's small but nonetheless impressive-sounding orchestra---again, reiterating the notion that music truly soars as a communally-shared activity (when not part of the center action, the actors play their instruments while sitting in chairs on either side of the stage).

This bit of musical innovation---in which the actors play their own instruments---isn't exactly new to the world of musical theater. But here, it feels very much organically imbedded into the show's DNA. Even better---to further hammer home the idea of seemingly-spontaneous community camaraderie---audience members are even encouraged to go up on stage to order drinks right from the show's pub set (designed by Bob Crowley), both before the show even officially starts and also during intermission... all while cast members break out into a rip-roaring jam session.

And, boy, in ONCE, it's one helluva jam session.

BWW Reviews: Tony-Winning ONCE Makes Stirring OC Debut

In essence, what it lacks in traditional storytelling and conventional expectations is counterbalanced by its slew of introspective, emotionally-resonant songs that feel like a better-than-emo soundtrack to realistic heartache. The songs themselves (many of which came directly from the film) also help fashion wholly original, realistic characters that elicit genuinely poignant connections.

The Girl---which on the surface feels like just another mock-able waif-like sprite with an unapologetic Euro, street-wise speech pattern---is actually more than just an otherworldly angel that magically lands to rescue the Guy from his emotionally-scarred downward spiral.

Though he finds a creative kindred spirit within her and immediately takes a liking to her brazen, blunt ways, she too needed him in her life. With an AWOL husband and bills to pay (and a mother, daughter and hungry neighbors to feed), she needed a creative outlet---a distraction, if you will---from her harsh life, too.

Of course, there's no denying the Girl's impact in the Guy's life (just check out the musical's poster tagline, if you don't believe me). At first she seems like nothing more than a curious, nosey gal (albeit a very pretty one), but eventually she becomes the defibrillator he needed to both restart his heart and to reignite a long-dormant dream of becoming an honest-to-goodness working musician.

And with the kind of honesty they poured into the music, no wonder it has become a petrie dish for love to grow.

"Ah, love..." a character says in the musical. "When humans are involved it turns into soup!"

Complicated love born out of passionate creative collaboration is nothing new... if such a thing is impossible, the coupling of actors working in films together would come to a halt.

With that in mind, the believable chemistry between lead actors Nee and de Waal is so winningly palpable that it's not hard for the audience to root for these two to just chuck all their doubts away and fall in love already. Musically, both sound exquisite, making their version of "Falling Slowly" a memorable highlight of the show (yes, I even cried). Nee, in particular, does a phenomenal job conveying the vulnerable, heart-bruised Guy (Editorial Note: Nee, who usually understudies the role, will be alternating back-and-forth as "Guy" with fellow understudy Ryan Link during the show's Costa Mesa stop).

The supporting cast, who play various townsfolk, is every bit as multi-talented as their roles call for. Providing charm, color, and, sometimes, comic relief (aside from musical accompaniment, of course), the actor-musicians in the cast exude an impassioned attachment to their characters that reads really well for the audience. And, my gosh, when they sing together---particularly in "Gold" in a capella---it's quite heavenly. Experiencing these accomplished musicians performing live is worth the price of a ticket alone.

Also, if you're a fan of the original movie, the multitude of subtle differences between the film and the stage version is also worth checking---proving that seeing ONCE just once may not be enough.

Even those who've never seen the movie won't be too shocked by the bittersweet ending (which remains unchanged). When all is said, sung and done, ultimately, both the Guy and the Girl get exactly the resolution they're meant to have---and we're totally okay with that.

Follow this reviewer on Twitter: @cre8iveMLQ

Top photo of Dani de Waal and Alex Nee from ONCE - THE MUSICAL courtesy of Segerstrom Center for the Arts. Photos of the first national tour company by © Joan Marcus.


Performances of ONCE - THE MUSICAL continues at Segerstrom Center for the Arts through Sunday, August 31. Tickets can be purchased online at, by phone at 714-556-2787 or in person at the SCFTA box office (open daily at 10 am). Segerstrom Center for the Arts is located at 600 Town Center Drive in Costa Mesa.

For tickets or more information, visit

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From This Author Michael L. Quintos

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