Regional Reviews: Phoenix
The show features music by Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová (both of whom starred in the film), including all of the original songs from the movie as well as some new ones the two have written. It is a story of two people from different worlds who are somewhat lost in their lives. The characters are simply called Guy and Girl. Guy's girlfriend moved away to New York, leaving him heartbroken, lost and feeling worthless. He lives with his father and repairs vacuum cleaners in his father's shop, but it is really only when he sings and plays his original songs that he comes alive. Girl lives with her mother, her daughter, and some fellow Czechs. Once she meets the Guy and hears a rough demo tape of some of his original songs, she urges him to make a professional demo recording, and she will help him make that happen. They are both somewhat muses for each other and some of the most intimate and touching moments are when they are singing solo songs that we assume are about the other person.
While the plot basically follows the movie, with a couple of slight changes, the musical provides a platform to showcase the talents of the entire cast, as everyone in the show sings, plays various instruments, and appears as various supporting characters. While the actors in the movie also played and sang, having the actors in the musical perform and play their instruments live in front of you allows everyone to display their abilities and makes the show achieve a level of realism rarely seen. And, unlike some recent Broadway musicals in which the actors were also the musicians, the fact that in this show the characters in the show are all musicians, having the actors play instruments seems only natural. The musical, like the movie, is unlike a lot of other shows and movies out there. It is a show that not everyone is going to love, as not much really happens and the score is extremely ballad heavy. It also has a somewhat abrupt beginning, and after the first song, the next 10 minutes are just the two lead characters talking.
While it is a fairly simple story of two characters getting to know each other, the music that the two of them make carries you to a place of beauty with a certain charm and sweetness to it. The Oscar winning song from the film, "Falling Slowly," is featured prominently and the title of that song pretty much describes how I felt about the show as I slowly fell in love with the show and the two leads and found myself completely drawn to the passion they have for each other and to the music they create.
Ryan Link and Dani de Waal are the Guy and the Girl, and both are on par with Steve Kazee and Cristin Milioti who originated the parts on Broadway. While de Waal gets some of the best dialogue in the show it is Link who really shines on the majority of the songs. His voice has the right shades of purity and roughness to get every nuance out of the songs, and he has the perfect lost boy look that allows de Waal and the audience to fall in love with him while also wanting to help him find his way. He also appears to be a very gifted guitarist. Link is actually the understudy for the tour lead Stuart Ward, who is off for this week of the run, so how accomplished he is in the part is very impressive. De Waal has a natural gift for comedy which comes in handy in this show. She has a charming personality and we can easily see why the Guy falls for her Girl. De Wall also has a lilting, rich and pure voice that really strikes an emotional core in her songs. Enda Walsh has written the book for the musical, and while some of the lines for the Girl might appear clichéd, de Waal's delivery of them, in her thick Czech accent, somehow makes them seem more realistic than they would be if they were said by someone else in the cast.
The ensemble cast is quite good, with nice comical work from Evan Harrington as Billy, the owner of the piano shop where the Girl often goes, and a quite powerful, yet touching performance by Donna Gardner as Baruka, the Girl's mother. Benjamin Magnuson provides a perfect soft touch in the role of the Bank Manager and Claire Wellin is appropriately feisty as Réza, one of the Girl's roommates.
Director John Tiffany and the creative team for the tour are the same as in the Broadway production and Tiffany does a good job of combining the simple plot elements with the fact that his entire cast is also his orchestra. He has created some very memorable stage images as well. The entire cast is almost always on stage, with the ensemble sitting in chairs on the sides of the stage, which allows them to perform the music accompaniment, thus serving somewhat as a "Greek chorus," always watching but rarely commenting on the action in front of them. Choreography or "Movement" as they are calling it, is by Steven Hoggett and, while some of the ways the ensemble are incorporated are very effective, especially during the song "Gold," there are also a few times when it is stylized almost to the point of being laughable. But there were only one or two of those moments. The scene changes also receive fun choreographed movement.
The set for the tour by Bob Crowley, like on Broadway, is a large rundown bar that uses an effective lighting design by Natasha Katz and minimal set pieces to portray the various locations in the show. This minimalistic approach doesn't always work to effectively establish the location of each scene, but it does allow the characters at the center to be the focus of the piece instead of relying on large moving set pieces to possibly take your attention away from the simple love story that the show is really about. The use of mirrors of various shapes and sizes along the walls of the bar is effective as it adds another dimension to the simplistic set and provides an interesting image when the stage lights hit them.
About the abrupt start to the show I mentioned above: make sure you arrive to the theatre early as the ensemble cast provides about 20 minutes of music before the show. While most of them have small roles in the show, this "pre-show" gives them a chance to shine on solo vocals as well as to show off their individual musical abilities on the various instruments they play. While this pre-show is an extremely effective way to warm the audience up, the Guy starts to sing the first song of the show while the house lights are still up, so many people in the audience may be still getting settled in their seats thinking that this is still part of the pre-show. Before this song, Raymond Bokhour, who plays the Guy's father in the show, sings a really nice song and it would seem more effective if at the end of that song the house lights slowly dimmed so when the Guy comes on the stage the audience would know the "show" was starting and would settle down some. One nice thing about the pre-show, the bar on stage also serves drinks to the audience before the show and at intermission. So, not only can you get a drink on the actual stage but you can hang out on it while the ensemble is performing the pre-show songs.
Once is a magical musical, unlike anything out there and one that I think really connects with many people. The touring production is on par with the Broadway production, with two extremely talented actors in the leads, an amazingly gifted ensemble cast, and simple, creative and truthful direction and choreography. Once is one musical I don't think you should miss, either on Broadway or on the top notch national tour.
Once runs through May 4th, 2014, at ASU Gammage located at 1200 S. Forest Avenue in Tempe. Tickets can be purchased at www.asugammage.com or by calling 480 965-3434. For more information on the tour, visit www.oncemusical.com/tour.html.
Enda Walsh (Playwright)