Sometimes the best musicals come from the simplest stories. The classic tale of boy meets girl, boy falls in love with girl, boy loses girl is certainly no stranger to the stage and, at its heart; the musical “Once,” (based on the 2006 John Carney film) is really just that. Simple, eloquent storytelling about two people that fall in love. However, it’s the way in which this classic storyline is brought to life that makes “Once” so magical.
“Once” opens with a bang, as patrons enter the theatre, they are greeted by a host of live musicians filling the large auditorium with their Irish folk-style music. There is no harsh beginning or “get to your seats” indication that the show is about to begin, as the tone changes from up-beat party to a smooth and haunting rendition of “On Raglan Road.” Once the audience settles in, the story begins, and we are introduced to the Boy and the Girl that will be falling in love. Neither is given a name, making these characters even more universal. The Boy is an Irish musician in Dublin, though he’s going to give up his musical dreams because of a broken heart. The Girl is a local Czech immigrant who loves his music and pushes him to keep going.
Throughout the show the music takes center stage, as brilliant adaptations of the score seep into the hearts of all that are lucky enough to watch. Really, this is all about the music, written by Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova, with such haunting melodies and brilliant craftsmanship that a simple concert of the show alone would be enough.
However, the musicians and actors are also flawless, as they join in the action on stage or simply sit to the sides, adding the accompaniment as needed. The most well-known number from the show “Falling Slowly” is heart-wrenchingly good, but one of the most brilliant moments on stage comes in act two, when Girl is simply at a piano by herself singing “The Hill.” It’s simple, it’s brilliant and there is nothing to take away from her shining, passionate moment.
Both Stuart Ward and Dani de Waal are superb as Guy and Girl. Each brings a casual, effortless style to their performances. De Waal is particularly stunning, however, as her innocent appeal infectiously charms the audience. Likewise, the entire ensemble is perfectly cast, experts at their craft and all worthy of tremendous applause. The set is simple and stunning, the lighting design is incredibly effective and the overall result of the combined efforts of cast and crew is pure, simplistic brilliance.
The show itself is not long, about two hours in length, and the intermission does take away some of the momentum built during the first act, making this one production that could easily have gone the full run without a break. The subtitles used during a few scenes where Girl’s family is speaking Czech are effective, though it would have been nice to see those subtitles used during the Czech song as well. However, those tiny criticisms aside, “Once” is an effortless moment in masterful storytelling, done through the use of the most simple and eloquent techniques. It’s a show for the ages, one that anyone would love, and one of those magic moments that reminds you how powerful live theater can be when it’s done right.