Review: Simplicity supplies emotional eloquence to pub musical ‘Once’
At last, a Broadway show that doesn’t feel the need to conk its audience over the head with hollow flash and empty dazzle. “Once,” the Tony-winning musical based on John Carney’s 2006 indie film, honors its source by staying true to its folksy lyricism.
The production, which opened Thursday at the Hollywood Pantages, has the feeling of a meditative midnight stroll. A pub stroll might be a better analogy: This musical unfolds in a Dublin bar, with the show’s various locals summoned with minimal fuss within a rather traditional drinking establishment (devised by Bob Crowley, who also designed the costumes).
The pace of the show can occasionally seem sluggish. You could watch the film in the time it takes to reach the intermission. The book, written by the inventive Irish playwright Enda Walsh, could use a shot of adrenaline in places, but the staging by John Tiffany, collaborating again with the ingenious movement director Steven Hoggett, is often mesmerizing in a mellow fashion that almost (but not quite!) made me want to put on jeans shorts and loll about listening to ‘70s rock.
The actors, who remain on the sidelines when not directly involved in a scene, double as musicians. There’s nothing artificial about this convention here because music is woven into the fabric of the characters’ lives. It’s both their communal bond and their private outlet for feelings that lie too deep to share over a pint.
A love story of a different kind, “Once” revolves around a fateful encounter between Guy (Stuart Ward), a dejected Dublin musician who’s a vacuum repair man in his father’s shop by day, and Girl (Dani de Waal), a Czech pixie piano player who hears him singing one of his songs and recognizes a genuine artist with a bruised heart.
Noticing that he’s about to abandon his guitar, she stages an intervention, bartering a deal in which she’ll play him a piece of music if he’ll fix her vacuum. She’s buying time while looking for ways to reconnect him to his inspiration.
Girl sees that Guy is a little bit “stopped,” as she says to his Da (Raymond Bokhour). His girlfriend has moved to New York and his artistic dreams remain unrealized. Money is tight and he’s still living with his father, sleeping in a little room above the vacuum repair shop and fearing that his future will be as bleak as his present.
She has her own challenges, living with her hearty mother (Donna Garner), young daughter (Kolette Tetlow) and boisterous Czech friends in cramped quarters. Her husband has taken off and she’s not sure whether he’ll be coming back. But more of a muse than a fully developed character, Girl follows an intuitive logic in helping Guy heal himself.
“Once” is a romance in which two people fall in love not to live happily ever after together but to help each other transcend the obstacles that are keeping them from fulfilling their destiny. In just a couple of days, she helps Guy organize a marathon recording studio session, with help from Billy (Evan Harrington), the cartoonishly bumptious owner of a music store who’s infatuated with her, and a cello-playing bank manager (Benjamin Magnuson) with a soft spot for country-and-western tunes and fellow music makers.
Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová, who wrote the score (and were the stars of the film), tailor the music both to specific cultural milieus and individual characters. The fluidity with which this is done is balm for a musical that proceeds a bit too lackadaisically with its leads while allowing its supporting character time for clownish antics that only slow things down further.
Naturally, “Falling Slowly,” the song that won an Academy Award, takes pride of place in this musical adaptation. I confess that I grew to curse this little ditty when it was being played incessantly on the radio and even held it accountable for a few close calls of highway hypnosis. But hearing it again renewed my original appreciation, especially with Ward infusing the song with the raw feeling of a rock star who’s about to finally get his due.
In general, the music is superior to the drama, which can veer between sentimentality and very broad comedy. De Waal, whose wispy role isn’t easy to make real, can get a little sing-songy in her delivery of lines. But like Ward, she flourishes when getting lost in the music.
This is a solid touring production of a show that would work better in an intimate house but seems, remarkably, right at home at the cavernous Pantages. The staging preserves that quality that helped set this musical apart on Broadway — emotional eloquence in stillness.
Where: Hollywood Pantages, 6233 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood
When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sundays. Ends Aug. 10.
Tickets: Start at $25
Contact: https://www.HollywoodPantages.com or (800) 982-2787
Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes
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