There are some musicals that try to wow audiences with pyrotechnics, vocal acrobatics or anything else to make the story pop off the stage. Once the Musical, playing at Winspear Opera House through December 28, is the antithesis of that, putting its focus on the simplicity of great music and a love story.
It’s literally a guy-meets-girl tale, as the two main characters aren’t given names and are referred to in the program as just Guy (Stuart Ward) and Girl (Dani de Waal). They bond over their shared love of music: Guy reluctantly shows off his guitar and songwriting skills, and Girl chimes in on piano.
With both Guy and Girl experiencing the highs and lows of love throughout, many of the songs are melancholy, some are joyful and some are angry — but all are memorable.
The production does two unusual things to get the audience in the mood for what’s to come. First, anyone who wants to can go up onstage, order a drink, and mill around prior to the first act and at intermission. And instead of a huge entrance, the actors come onstage at the beginning, while audience members are still there, to perform a jam session that eventually transforms into the beginning of the musical. It’s an enchanting way to introduce the characters and sets the tone right away.
Anyone who’s seen the movie Once, on which the musical is based, will recognize the beats of the story, although you need to pay close attention to understand that the bare-bones set stands in for multiple locations.
What you see is a pub in Dublin with virtually every actor in the production sitting or standing in different parts of the stage. But using context, you see the pub transform into a city street, a vacuum cleaner repair shop, different homes, a recording studio, a hilltop and more. The power of suggestion can be very powerful, and set designer Bob Crowley, along with choreographer Steven Hoggett, accomplishes much with very little.
It’s also nice that the songs are organic to the plot and service forward momentum. Characters don’t break into song just because; this is a story about the couple’s discovering their musical voice, and each song reflects that journey. With both Guy and Girl experiencing the highs and lows of love throughout, many of the songs are melancholy, some are joyful and some are angry — but all are memorable.
Most notable is the musical’s main theme, “Falling Slowly,” which won an Oscar for Best Song for the film’s stars, Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova. Its appearance in the first act is a revelatory scene for Guy, as it allows Girl to see what he is capable of and for him to understand that he doesn’t have to settle for the banal life he is living. It makes a return in the second act, this time infused with a different but equally emotional meaning.
About the only issues that crop up in the stage version are a couple of character overreaches by playwright Enda Walsh, adapting John Carney’s film script. He attempts to bring in a little levity via characters like Billy (Evan Harrington) and Svec (Matt DeAngelis), and although he succeeds for the most part, there are times when they veer into sitcom territory, a feeling that clashes with the rest of the musical.
Thankfully, the focus stays mostly on Guy and Girl, and Ward and de Waal are up to the task of carrying the story. Both emulate their film forebears, Hansard and Irglova, enough to give the songs the flavor of the original versions while still offering something of their own. And the bittersweet tone that hangs over the entire production is felt deeply through their acting.
Once the Musical doesn’t need the bombast that accompanies many other musicals. It’s just one guy, one girl and the great music they make together, both figuratively and literally. What more do you need?