Once upon a time, there was a film called Once. It was made for dirt cheap in 2006 by writer and director John Carney, shot in 17 days, and starred two unprofessional actors. Fast-forward seven years, and those stars—Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová—are Oscar winners, the movie has grossed almost US$9.5 million, and a Broadway musical based on the story walked away from the 2012 Tonys with eight awards, including Best Musical.
Now Toronto gets to take part in Once‘s Cinderella story, as the touring production continues its run at the Royal Alexandra Theatre until early 2014, rounding out Mirvish’s holiday offerings: Aladdin for the kids, Les Misérables for an outing with your parents, and for a romantic night at the theatre with your folk-music-loving significant other, this simple story of two broken-hearted Dubliners who find a connection through music.
The ideal Irish pub is one full of raucous foot stomping, slurred chanting, and beer swilling, and that’s more or less where Once begins. The set, designed by Bob Crowley, is a pub’s rustic interior, with a bar along the back and dirty mirrors adorning the walls. As the audience files in, they’re invited to enter the theatrical drinking hole for a glass of beer or wine and watch a lively jam session by the performers. But after a beautiful, sorrowful solo from the deep-voiced Raymond Bokhour, things get emotional. Enter Guy (Stuart Ward), a man reeling from a rough breakup and ready to give up music for a life working for his dad’s vacuum repair business, and Girl (Dani de Waal), a young Czech immigrant who makes it her mission to stop him from doing that. The story takes place over five days, during which Guy, Girl, and their group of friends in Dublin sing and play through a catalogue of slow and melancholy songs that illuminate their desire for something more, and the various forces that keep it out of their reach.
The film is startlingly quiet and subtle (the original draft of the script was only 60 pages), and that’s also the strength of the stage production. There are a few more rousing group numbers, but limiting the orchestra to just the performers on stage—they sing and play instruments—keeps the music intimate. That doesn’t mean songs like “Gold” and “Falling Slowly” don’t bowl you over, but they do so with feeling, rather than with sheer volume and spectacle.
The weaker parts of the show are when Guy and Girl’s relationship gets too overt, too obvious, too overemotional. So much drama is found in the silence and subtext between these two characters, but there’s very little left unclear between Ward and de Waal in Enda Walsh’s script. Director John Tiffany’s evident temptation to stage a dramatic confrontation between the two nameless musicians, or even to have them explicitly declare their feelings for each other, undermines the tension. At times, Ward and de Waal slip into angsty or romantic histrionics, upsetting the nobility of their characters. More traditional musical theatre tropes, like the hammy music store owner and the stereotypical nerdy bank teller, slightly cheapen the story.
Still, Once is an excellent example of a successful Broadway musical that doesn’t need to rely solely on flashy numbers and special effects. This one has heart, thanks to the music of Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová. Even on stage, it retains the rough-around-the-edges passion of an indie film.