by CHRISTINE SARKES SASSEVILLE
Once is an amazing, once-in-a-lifetime theater experience with achingly beautiful melodies, a ridiculously talented cast of triple-threat actors (actor, musician, and singer) and a richly compelling story about falling in love and following your dreams. Winner of eight Tony Awards and an Academy Award for the movie version of “Falling Slowly” (one of my favorite songs of all time), Once is the musical stage adaptation based on the 2007 film, retaining many of the songs written by Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová, who starred in the film. The musical also won a 2013 Grammy Award for Best Musical Theater Album. I list these awards to demonstrate that Once may be one of the most critically acclaimed musicals you’ve never heard of. If you are a fan of live musical entertainment and unique theater experiences, I highly recommend you see the musical during its short April 1-6 run at the Orpheum Theatre.
While waiting for the play to begin, the audience is encouraged to mingle onstage in the minimalist set that includes a bar with chairs lining stage left and right. Cast members arrive playing instruments and singing Irish folk songs. In the musical, each actor serves as a member of the band/orchestra, choir and stage crew. Director John Tiffany and Movement coach Steven Hoggett deserve special mention for creating unique plot and mood transitions by making the most of the actor’s movements and props.
The play opens with thirty-something Dublin street performer, simply known as “Guy” (Stuart Ward) singing a ballad of unrequited love in a local bar, accompanying himself on guitar. Grieving and frustrated with his stalled musical career, Guy starts to leave without his guitar when a young Czech woman, also simply known as “Girl” (Dani de Waal), who has been listening to him sing, approaches and asks personal questions about his songs and his life. He admits that he is still in love with a former girlfriend who moved to New York City and is abandoning his music because the memories are too painful and no one listening anyway. He now works as a vacuum cleaner repairman in his father’s shop. Girl responds that she has a vacuum that “does not suck” and asks him to fix it. She offers to pay for the repair by playing piano for him. They eventually play a duet, “Falling Slowly,” and Girl plots to help Guy realize his talent and recover his true love.
Over the next few days, Girl encourages Guy to follow his girlfriend to New York to pursue his musical career. She introduces him to her family, including her young daughter, her roommates and her friend Billy (a wonderful scene-stealer, Evan Harrington), the struggling owner of a music store. Guy, in turn, introduces her to his father, who is mourning the loss a year earlier of his wife and Guy’s mother. While becoming acquainted with each other, Guy and Girl discover a mutual attraction and deep love of music. Girl continues to push Guy to pursue his dreams by arranging a bank loan and studio rental so Guy can send a CD to a New York producer. Each character in the play is changed in some way through these interactions, none more so than Guy and Girl, who begin to understand that their successes will come with personal costs.
The actors, and especially leads Ward and de Waal, give heartfelt and powerful performances that are even more remarkable for their amazing musicianship. Ward’s raw and emotion-filled voice and guitar playing evoke great folk/rock singers, such as Bruce Springsteen and Van Morrison. De Waal balances charmingly a dichotomy in her character between sweetness and aggressive honesty. The play is ultimately about love’s redemptive qualities and how following a dream in a life lived once is worth the cost.
Once, Music and Lyrics by Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová. Book by Enda Walsh, directed by John Tiffany. April 1-6, 2014 at the Orpheum Theatre, 615 Hennepin Avenue, Minneapolis. Tickets start at $59 online at hennepintheatretrust.org, or call 1.800.982.2787.