Dallas — One of the dangers of adapting something like Once, a shaggy but beloved little indie film made for around $100,000 in 2007, is that in transitioning into a big-budget Broadway vehicle, the sharp edges and rough-hewn charms of the original will get lost in translation. Thankfully, much of the film’s quirky charm has survived the move to Broadway, resulting in a sweet, soulful piece of work, deserving of its many awards and accolades, including the Best Musical Tony. The current touring production, performing this weekend only at the AT&T Performing Arts Center’s Winspear Opera House in the Broadway Series, boasts a truly stellar and multi-talented ensemble cast, which more than does the musical justice.
A Guy (Jack Gerhard) and a Girl (Mariah Lotz) meet-cute on a Dublin street corner. Or, technically, in a pub — all the action of the piece takes place in one location, a semi-seedy Dublin bar that’s convincingly seen better days, via a few quick prop changes. Sidebar: Many productions of the piece have legitimately served audience members drinks from a working bar onstage; the Winspear doesn’t go quite that far, but does allow audience members up onstage before the show and during intermission for a few lively sing-and-stomp-alongs with the cast.
But back to our heroes: Guy is an amateur musician/professional vacuum repairman whose girlfriend broke his heart and moved to New York, giving rise to a lot of heartbroken ballads in her wake. Overhearing one of these songs is the Girl, a Czech immigrant to Dublin who, like Guy, is a classically trained pianist with her own romantic struggles. Finding themselves both at a sort of personal crossroads, the two bond over heartbreak and a shared love for music, collaborating musically and growing closer despite knowing their time together has a built-in expiration date. Sentimental it may be, but never cloying, it’s a lovely, simple tale of the moment the right person falls into your life and, even in a short time, utterly transforms it.
Playwright Enda Walsh manages the tricky feat of broadening the action of the story for the stage without losing an ounce of its intimacy; intimacy cultivated by original director John Tiffany and faithfully maintained by tour director (and original Broadway cast member) J. Michael Zygo. The beauty of Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova’s music and lyrics, too, is only enhanced and deepened here, in great part to the talents of the ensemble actors, who act as the show’s onstage orchestra throughout. And, if Guy’s a bit less scruffy and a bit more broodingly handsome, and if Girl’s shading a bit more towards the Manic Pixie Dream Girl archetype than in the original film, it doesn’t detract from the delicacy and power of their relationship. Gerhard and Lotz’s chemistry smolders softly, but palpably throughout, and both are incredible singers and musicians; Gerhard in particular shows an incredible vocal control without ever bringing too much polish to his songs. Lotz’s voice is beautiful, though I’m sorry to say it was at times overpowered in ensemble numbers on Friday night; I was glad she got her chance to shine in her lone solo number, “The Hill” in Act Two.
While the entire ensemble is astonishingly talented, there are a few particular standouts. Jon Patrick Penick is a scene-stealer as music store owner Billy, a self-professed hot-blooded half-Spaniard, half-Dubliner who’s crushing hard and hopelessly on Girl, and who eventually gets drawn into Guy and Girl’s musical project. Todd Aulworm deserves props not only for his performance as a seemingly uptight banker with a hidden passion for music, but also for getting through his dance moves gracefully whilst lugging a full-size cello across the stage. And Trevor Lindley Craft delivers some of the show’s funnier lines as Girl’s Czech roommate Svec, and also pulls off some truly ugly tracksuit bottoms. Each actor plays beautifully and with gusto, stomping across the stage when the action calls for it, but at other times fading gracefully into the background. My only complaint regarding the onstage orchestration is that, on occasion, the balance is off and the actors’ voices are somewhat drowned out.
A key to the feeling of intimacy and warmth evoked by the show is Russell A. Thompson’s lighting design, which diffuses a sort of golden light throughout the piece and isolates key moments of the action in pools of light that create its own little world within them. The set design (from Bob Crowley, also responsible for the costume design) plays a part as well, with the action reflected and fragmented in frames mounted on the pub’s back wall and filled with cloudy mirrored glass — the large frame behind the bar forms almost a video screen, capturing the main action. An issue where your mileage might vary from mine is in the movement elements, originally created by celebrated British choreographer and movement director Stephen Hoggett. I found them overwrought and a bit jarring at times; however, Hoggett was nominated for a Tony for these elements, so I would appear to be in the minority on this issue.
A thoroughly charming adaptation of a beloved film that manages to not only hold on to what was beloved about the film, but to expand on it? A unicorn of a musical, deserving of its many, many accolades, and a touring production that’s bursting with talent and verve.