Fort Worth — There’s no falling slowly for Once.
Nope, I fell fast and hard at Bass Performance Hall for this beguiling and bittersweet love story of an Irish guy and a Czech girl who literally make beautiful music together—a ragtag story spun into musical gold from the unlikely material of writer John Carney’s low-budget indie movie, filmed on the streets of Dublin. In fact, this show had me even before it began, at the first sound of wailing fiddles and stamping feet onstage.
“I hope you’re going to give it a rave,” said the elegant lady to my right—Broadway star Betty Buckley, who admitted she “cried all the way through” the show when she saw it in New York.
Well, yes, Miss B., I am—but only because I want to.
Still, what more is there to say about this tough, great “little” musical, re-written for the stage by Irish playwright Enda Walsh with direction by John Tiffany? It swept the 2012 Tony’s with eight wins, including Best Musical. Once beat out the front-runner—Disney’s romping, vigorous Newsies—and succeeded on Broadway where plenty of bigger film-to-stage projects had fizzled. For everything you need to know about this national touring production, read David Novinski’s comprehensive and excellent TJ review here of the company’s mid-December run at the Winspear in Dallas—but here’s another thought about Once that’s exciting:
It’s club music…and it’s a hit Broadway musical.
Back in the day—the teens, Twenties, Thirties of the last century—Broadway show tunes were the heart and soul of popular music.
That connection started to fray in the post-war years—pop music went one way (R&B, rock, folk, heavy metal, disco, hip-hop) and show tunes, while remaining roaringly popular with segments of the music audience, became a sideshow, not the main event.
In this week’s New York Times, critic Ben Brantley (reviewing Lin-Manuel Miranda’s new American-history musical Hamilton) was found riffing on the same theme—and celebrating a shift in the musical-comedy zeitgeist.
“…via rap and R&B ballads, this sung-through production sounds a lot like what you’d hear if you turned the radio [on]. To which you may well say, ‘So what?’ But this confluence of what’s heard on the American musical stage and what’s heard on the airwaves and in the clubs hasn’t existed for at least six decades.”
The songs in Once, with music and lyrics by musician/performers Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová (originally written for the 2007 film) are definitely tunes we might hear in the clubs and bars—though perhaps not on the same night: rousing Irish-Czech dance tunes, anguished ravers, quiet ballads of love and loss. The lyrics are as knotty and unpredictable as a John Donne poem—they don’t always turn into completed thoughts. But in “Falling Slowly,” “The Hill,” “Say it To Me Now” and other songs, these odd lines have a persuasive power, a kind of poetry of accumulation. We are drawn close to the emotions of the story before we know it.
Two British actors anchor the production with gritty, heartfelt performances. As Guy, the downhearted Irish songwriter and guitarist who’s just about to give it all up when he meets the Girl who loves his music, actor-singer Stuart Ward brings a rock sensibility to the music, hitting it heavy and hard, with a raw, keening voice that digs deep into the emotions of the material. As the “always serious” Czech Girl determined to revive Guy’s career, Dani de Waal seems to have a naturally comic deadpan presence—and accompanying herself on piano, she lays down each word of her songs with lyric delicacy. (Happily, her thick but precise Czech accent is easier to understand than some of the Irish brogues onstage.)
These two lonely people aren’t entirely alone. He fixes Hoovers in a shop with his Da (Scott Waara); she works in a music shop, and lives in an immigrant Czech community with her mother (Tina Stafford) and child (Sarah McKinley Austin). But they long for human connection: his girl has left him for adventures in New York; her husband’s gone away with no sign he’ll return. It’s not a romance at the start—but we know the Girl is giving him the best version of love she can. Her gift will be to bring Guy and his music back to life…even if that life may not have a place for her.
Up and down the line, the cast seems made up of “I can do anything” types—nailing their characters and the songs, while also performing as the show’s onstage, ever-moving band. There are violins and guitars, a cello and mandolin, accordion, drums, even a banjo and uke if you look fast. Steven Hoggett’s dynamic movement for these musician-actors will stick in your memory: it’s a dance vocabulary for two—actors leaning, lunging and swirling with their instruments around the stage, as if they’re on a tilting ship’s deck in the middle of a very good party.
Beyond the musical moments that let them shine, these actors create a community of unusually vivid characters. Matt DeAngelis and Erica Swindell are lively and funny as members of the Girl’s immigrant Czech world (their conversations, amusingly, are in English, but with supertitles in Czech!); Waara and Stafford are clear-eyed but touching as concerned parents. Evan Harrington as music shop owner Billy and Benjamin Magnuson as a songwriting Bank Manager provide broad comedy that works—and Magnuson has fun singing the banker’s latest (and quite awful) tune.
We bask in the glow of pub light and star light in Once, via Natasha Katz’ gorgeous lighting design for the original show—which, in turn, makes Bob Crowley’s aged-in-the-wood pub setting glow softly in tones of amber and blue. The set’s walls are lined with beautifully worn mirrors of various shapes and sizes that double and triple our vision of the performers onstage. With their backs to us, we see their faces and movements reflected from one mirror to the next in a hypnotic, dreamlike fashion.
Come early, and you can get a closer look at that set—and an “actor’s eye” view of Bass Hall. Audience members are invited to come onstage, order a beer (a first for Bass Hall audiences!) and wander the stage. Don’t be surprised when cast members start to appear, picking up guitars and violins, and starting a few rounds of song, with a lovely Irish song from Scott Waara to send us off to our seats. It’s a companionable way to start the show and make us feel part of the action.
Judging by the chat in the Bass Hall lobby on opening night, there were plenty of people who’d seen Once already in New York or Dallas, and who were coming back for more.
Once is enough, it seems—but twice is nice, too. The show closes on Sunday.