Review: ONCE

by Lynn on December 1, 2013

in The Passionate Playgoer


At the Royal AlexandraTheatre, Toronto. Book by Enda Walsh, (based on the film written and directed by John Carney). Music and lyrics by Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová. Designed by Bob Crowley. Lighting by Natasha Katz. Sound by Clive Goodwin. Movement by Steven Hoggett. Directed by John Tiffany. Starring: Raymond Bokhour, Dani de Waal, Matt deAngelis, John Steven Gardner, Donna Garner, Evan Harrington, Stuart Ward.

Once plays at the RoyalAlexandraTheatre until January 5.

Once upon a time, in Dublin, there was an Irish guy named Guy and a Czech girl named Girl. They met when Girl heard Guy busking on the street, singing his plaintive, songs about a lost love. Girl thought he was very talented but wanted to know who the girl was who caused him to write the songs. Girl was very perceptive. Guy reluctantly told her it was a woman who he had loved but had moved to New York. He says he is over it. Girl of course knows better.

Guy worked for his father fixing vacuum cleaners. Girl needed her Hoover fixed—I won’t tell you why because it’s a lovely joke and I won’t spoil it by telling you, you should hear it yourself. (And yes I want you to go, to hear it and the rest of this wonderful show). Girl wants to hear more of Guy’s music. Guy gives her a CD of it. Girl takes Guy home to meet her mother and her young daughter. (It’s complicated.) Over the following days they keep company; sing; she encourages him to record his music; he realizes that in two days she’s turned his life around; they fall in love; and Girl tells him to go to New York to see his former girlfriend because he’s still in love with her.

Once upon a time there was a sweet independent film called Once that told this very story and the creators of the music and lyrics, Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová, won an Academy Award for “Falling Slowly’, one of the gorgeous songs in the film.

The film was then recreated into a small, sweet, heart-squeezing Broadway musical no less, with a new book by Enda Walsh. That Enda Walsh, (of Disco Pigs and The New Electrical Ballroom fame, plays that are muscular, angry, sometimes violent) could write such a gentle book is akin to Quentin Torentino creating Enchanted April. It’s possible but totally unexpected. Ahh one of the many beauties and surprises of live theatre. But write it he did. His script of Once is spare, tender, moving, tinged with heartache and wonderfully funny.

The music has made a smooth and glorious transition from film to stage. Director, John Tiffany goes from strength to strength from Black Watch to Once to the revelatory The Glass Menagerie also on Broadway.

For Once he has set the story in a pub. Designer Bob Crowley has created the bar and surround as if it’s a welcoming place to one and all.  The audience is treated to a pre-show concert by most of the cast, all of whom play the instruments that recreate the music. The audience is invited up on stage for a drink and to watch the concert. The playing is wild, vibrant and full of energy. When we least expect it, a tender ballad.  And then people are sent back to their seats to watch the show.

Very few props are needed; a piano, some chairs and some tables. The cast move the props around quickly and efficiently. Perhaps it’s this unlikely juxtaposition of a tender story played out in a lively pub that just grabs the audience and takes them into the story. Or perhaps we just can’t resist an unlikely love story, in which we root for both Guy and Girl, who are reticent about expressing their affections directly but are obviously made for each other.

To ramp up the emotion of the piece Tiffany rarely has Guy and Girl touch—that would be too easy. It is the audience that is desperate that they do. But Tiffany knows how to establish the intensity of feelings Guy has for Girl and vice versa, from a look; from the proximity of the characters; from reactions. It’s a subtle creation and not overt.

As Guy, Stuart Ward is boyish, certainly intense when this wisp of a young woman named Girl keeps probing about his mournful music. Ward sings with strong emotion initially because he is thinking of the woman who inspired the music. But as Guy tells Girl while he wrote the music for his lost girl-friend, he is now singing the songs with true emotion to Girl. When Ward gives that line, it’s with such urgency you can see the character’s life turning around.

As Girl, Dani de Waal, is serious, delicate yet formidable in her gentle persistence to get information and to support Guy to be true to his music. Both performances are lovely. The love of the characters emerges slowly and yet with a rush so that everybody in its wake is affected.

Once is that special kind of theatre that tells a simple story with elegance, humour, tenderness, wit, and open-hearted generosity.  And of course you should see it, ideally more than once.

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