Review: 'Once' the Musical Charms at the Fox

By Christopher Reilly
In Culture

It’s the anti-musical musical. The creators of the stage version of “Once” wisely didn’t try to turn the original low-budget film about a lovesick Dublin guy and the girl who pushes him toward his creative destiny into a traditional stage musical. There are no big flashy dance numbers here, or special effects, or lots of pop songs that will have audience members humming along or tapping their toes.

It is instead a small, personal, deeply passionate story told with an Irish lilt that makes the most banal platitude (of the “follow your dreams” variety) sound like poetry. It’s a beautiful, highly creative and captivating work that elevates a simple human condition—my girl left me and I’m oh so blue—to the level of Greek drama. But it’s a subtle Greek drama—how’s that for a contradiction? Instead of stabbing his own eyes out like Oedipus, our songwriting protagonist makes a demo.

"Once" at the Fox Theatre Photo by Joan Marcus

“Once” at the Fox Theatre
Photo by Joan Marcus

Guy and Girl (that is all they are identified by) are simple folk. He’s a busker and vacuum cleaner repair man in his dad’s shop. She’s a Czech pianist who lives with her humorously dramatic emigre’ family—“I’m Czech, I’m always serious” is the go-to punch line—playing on our notion of Slavs as dire, doomed and dark individuals. But when Girl hears Guy sing so passionately, yet appear so obviously lost, she sets about righting his world. In the space of a week, she gets a band and cuts a demo. This will surely make him an overnight success (we know, because everyone who hears him is so darned impressed) and thereby allow him to join his flighty girlfriend in New York. Naturally, Guy and Girl cautiously fall in unacknowledged love in the process.

"Once" at the Fox Theatre Photo by Joan Marcus

“Once” at the Fox Theatre
Photo by Joan Marcus

You know you’re in for a surprise when you walk into the theater and half the audience is on stage ordering drinks from the Bob Crowley-designed bar that serves as the only set, while the cast of musicians ramble through some lively Irish tunes. The set does become other places—the repair shop, a music store, and others as necessary, facilitated by the actors quickly moving minimal set pieces. Once the show began, the audience was spellbound.

"Once" at the Fox Theatre Photo by Joan Marcus

“Once” at the Fox Theatre
Photo by Joan Marcus

Director John Tiffany and writer Enda Walsh have remarkably maintained the vibe and appearance of the film, and with songs by Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova—who composed the songs and starred in the movie. It’s very much like watching a movie performed live. The way the show is staged and presented adds a great deal of freshness to what is actually an old plot, and could easily come off as maudlin and sickly sweet. The songs themselves are of the soulful variety, which in the hands of the outstanding performers become soaring ballads that reach deep into that poetic Irish suffering. To set the record straight, the Irish have many upbeat, uplifting and humorous songs—not all of them are dirges. Still, the songs are affecting and handsomely wrought, including “Falling Slowly,” which won the Academy Award.

Stuart Ward plays Guy with deep emotion and no small amount of charm, plus he plays a mean guitar and wrings every drop of pathos from his songs, while Dani de Waal, delightful as Girl, accompanies herself on piano and sings the heartbreakingly tender, “The Hill.” Everyone in the cast plays one or more instruments and character roles, notably Donna Garner as the Girl’s mother with her dark side fatalism, Raymond Bokhour as Guy’s father, and Evan Harrington as gentle blow-hard Billy.

“Once” is a unique and lovely theater piece that respects the notion that sometimes what we don’t say is what matters most, and it trusts us enough to slow down and let us look at all of life’s music.

Once continues at the Fox through April 20. For tickets and information, visit the Fox website.

Follow Christopher Reilly on Twitter @ChristoReilly

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