Dallas — Whichever way you come to know of Once, you won’t forget it.
Whether you’ve heard of the 2007 movie written and directed by John Carney or the Tony Award-hoarding 2012 Broadway adaptation, it’s a uniquely arresting romance. The production, onstage at the Winspear Opera house as a part of the AT&T Performing Arts Center Broadway Series, will hold you in the impossibly neither place of weary and weightless that comes in the moments between infatuation and love, a sort of “falling slowly”—to borrow the title of the Oscar winning song from the movie.
Without the palpable chemistry of the musicians Glen Hansard and Marketá Irglová, who wrote the music and lyrics and starred in the movie, the creators of this adaptation had to decipher the wistful feeling they engender. Book writer Enda Walsh sharpens the approach by making Girl (played with Czech flair by Danni de Waal) pursue Guy (played as a tortured Irish busker by Stuart Ward).
In brief, her spunk gets him out of his funk.
There’s not much more to it than that, but somehow that’s all we want. Once is enough, as it were. What makes the experience exceptional is the avoidance of the happily ever after story trope. This is about the almost.
When the audience is allowed in, there is a bar onstage at which patrons can get drinks among the cast who are cranking out hearty tunes. It’s a folksy frontispiece that acoustically lowers the bar as the sound from the ensemble comes across spirited, but thin. No worries, though. It’s part of Clive Goodwin’s Tony award winning sound design.
Imperceptibly the patrons leave the cast onstage. Scott Waara, who plays Da, serenades the ensemble with a soulful Irish ballad. Near the end, as Natasha Katz’s Tony-winning lights gently dim, he turns to aim the last lyrics to the audience. The moment has the subtle power of a blanket draped over a person who’s drifted into a nap. It’s the seal to the spell that we didn’t even notice being cast.
Director John Tiffany has taken us from preshow into the story seamlessly. Bob Crowley’s Tony-winning bar set will serve as the playing space with the cast retreating to seats on the side to play their instruments when not involved in a scene. It’s the “cast always onstage” cliché, but John Tiffany’s direction will use them to support the story and with movement choreographed by Steven Hoggett to broaden the scope of the romance to include themes of hope, loss, yearning and compassion—to name a few.
After Guy plays an original tune for the crowd at the bar, he abandons his guitar and by implication his music and even his life. Girl interrupts his surrender with a combination of belligerence and bad accent. His brooding Irish droop is no match for her plucky Czech drive and the scene moves from the bar to a music shop (by way of rolling on a piano) where she’s bargained to pay for his repair of her vacuum (also rolled on) by playing a piece on the piano. When it’s clear that his emotions are firmly entangled in songs that’s he’s written to his girlfriend, Girl proposes that they record the songs so that he can win her back.
It’s a strange way for a romance to bud and stranger still how it will flower. Or rather for whom the flowers bloom.
The production has a fabulous cast of talented ensemble players who manage multiple instruments and comedic interludes. Benjamin Magnuson as a bank manager with a troubadour’s soul has the dubious honor of singing a bad song badly in a beautifully entertaining way, and Evan Harrington hams it up hilariously as the music store manager.
But the production sinks or swims on its romantic leads. Dani de Waal captures the quirk of Marketá Irglová’s character in the movie, but at a scale fit for the stage. Ironically, though she drives the action of the show, we know the least about her. When all is sung and done, her motives are a mystery outside of the power of love.
Stuart Ward steps into the shoes of Glen Hansard’s brilliant busker and answers the accompanying vocal expectations with his own sterling voice. Where Hansard is power and passion, Ward has a pristine trill that allows for emotion filled honesty. It’s the difference between a songwriter on the street who has a second to capture your attention and an actor trained for the stage.
When Ward and de Waal sing the seminal “Falling Slowly,” the audience will forgive anything. They almost couldn’t wait for the last strains of the reprise to end before their standing ovation.
If ever a show needed an encore…
But seeing as how there isn’t, you may just have to see Once, twice.
» Once continues through Dec. 28 at the Winspear Opera House; and it also comes to Fort Worth's Bass Performance Hall Feb. 18-22.