Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Chicago

Oriental Theatre

Also see John's review of Wrecks

Stuart Ward and Dani de Waal
Just as its film predecessor showed a whole different way a movie musical could work, the Tony Award-winning Once reshapes our expectations of what a Broadway musical looks and feels like. This quiet story of a guy and a girl—both a little adrift in Dublin—who change each others' lives in just a few days defies most of the conventions of the genre. It keeps the most important ones: characters we root for and a protagonist with a quest. In this case, it's the girl's desire to get the guy—a talented singer and songwriter threatening to give up music—to pick up his guitar and record a demo album with her. The guy, an Irish busker, and the girl, a Czech immigrant and pianist, fall in love following a meet cute scene, but things don't work out in a musical comedy/fantasy way. They are resolved in more of a real life way.

After a prologue in which the audience can visit the cast on stage while they're playing some lively Irish music on Bob Crowley's unit set of an Irish pub, the story begins with the guy singing a song ("Leave") lamenting the departure of his girlfriend. It's so unlikely and untraditional an opening that it gives a sense of what it must have been like to be among the first audiences to see Aunt Eller churning butter in Oklahoma!. The score of folk songs by Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglová are quiet and melodic, yet so reflective of their likable characters and sung with such soulful passion they fill the huge Oriental Theatre easily. There's only one big dance number—the first act closer "Gold" (featured on the 2012 Tony Award telecast), but nothing more is needed as we're wrapped up in the story, characters and music.

A lot of the success of the film came from the charm of Hansard and Irglová as Guy and Girl. The same is true in this first national tour of the Broadway musical. The tour's Guy is the sensational British actor Stuart Ward, who emotionally belts Guy's plaintive songs and makes us feel for the human but wounded character. We share his falling not so slowly for the Girl, played with spunk and charm by Brit Dani de Waal. (She plays the piano, too—a huge onstage mirror shows us her fingers in the right places of the keyboard.) Librettist Enda Walsh, adapting John Carney's screenplay, has nicely adapted Girl's character to suit the stage—making her a little bigger, funnier and more outgoing than Irglová was in the film. He and director John Tiffany expanded the 95-minute film to a stage time of about two hours, 15 minutes, but it doesn't feel padded. Walsh has expanded some of the peripheral characters—the Czech guys we met in the girl's apartment, plus her sister Réza (played with punkish abandon by Chicago's Claire Wellin). The comic roles of the gentle music store owner Billy (Evan Harrington) and the Czech drummer Švec (Matt DeAngelis) are played a little broadly for my taste, but they provide some laughs and mix up the proceedings a bit. More restrained, and for my money funnier, are Benjamin Magnuson as the Bank Manager and Donna Garner as Girl's mom Baruška.

The cast of 13 all (except young Kolette Tetlow, who plays Girl's daughter) play instruments and move in Irish dance fashion around the stage to steps fashioned by Steven Hoggett. The doubling on instruments, it must be noted, gives us the chance to hear Magnuson play the cello once more, as he did in John Doyle's Sweeney Todd on Broadway and on tour.

Though the story moves around Dublin and happens in places like the music store, a vacuum cleaner repair shop, a recording studio and Guy and Girl's apartments, the pub is the only set. Rather than try to recreate all the settings of the film, Tiffany trusts the audience to imagine the places rather than try to depict them literally. It's sometimes a little hard to follow all the action without the visual cues of where everything is taking place, but most of the time it feels more genuine than looking at a bunch of painted backdrops.

While the idea that these two would meet and in less than a week find the money and the backup musicians to record a kickin' demo tape is pure showbiz romanticism, there's an honesty to the way things work out for Girl and Guy that lifts Once above all that. It feels like life and that makes it all the better fantasy.

Once will play the Oriental Theatre, 24 W. Randolph, Chicago, through October 27, 2013. For tickets, visit or call 800-775-2000. For more information on the tour, visit

Photo provided by Broadway in Chicago

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-- John Olson

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