Once at Oriental Theatre: Theater review
The Irish indie film about a near-romance between Dublin musicians gets a (nearly) thoroughly charming stage adaptation.
The 2006 Irish indie flick Once was a small, poignant story of not-quite-romance between two Dublin musicians—the unnamed guy a dejected but talented street busker who attracts the attention and affection of a Czech girl who's a talented pianist. Stars Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová, both real-life musicians and, at the time, a real-life couple, cowrote the movie's collection of tinkle-me-emo folk-rock tunes, winning the Oscar for best song for the breakout hit "Falling Slowly."
In his review of the film upon its 2007 U.S. release, my colleague Hank Sartin wrote, "Some are calling this film a musical, but it certainly doesn't look or feel like one." I'd echo that sentiment in regards to this 2011 stage adaptation, and I'd mean it as a compliment. Though it took home a boatload of Tony Awards last year including Best Musical, Once feels like a different species from the waves of screen-to-stage adaptations that've flooded Broadway in recent years. If anything, it feels like an expansion of the form.
That's partly due, perhaps, to the fact that Irglová and Hansard, the former Frames frontman, are working rock songwriters, as opposed to musical-theater composers writing their idea of rock songs. The numbers that make up the score here are full of drive and swell and emotion, rather than hooks and neat rhymes and clean transitions.
They're also performed, as should be the case in a show about musicians, where you can see them; director John Tiffany eschews a pit orchestra in favor of actor-musicians, with the still-unnamed Guy (Stuart Ward) on guitar and Girl (Dani de Waal) on piano accompanied by the supporting cast on various instruments. The actors largely remain onstage throughout in Bob Crowley's versatile unit-set Irish pub, which transforms as needed into varying locales via Natasha Katz's brilliant lights.
That idea of castmates as backing band rather alters the film's thesis on the self-created gulfs of urban isolation. Indeed, this Once celebrates the ripple effect of social kindnesses and the power of artistic creation, nicely and abstractly captured in Steven Hoggett's quirkily effective movement design. (Tiffany and Hoggett are the same team behind the National Theatre of Scotland's gripping Black Watch and the just-opened, much-acclaimed new Broadway revival of The Glass Menagerie; their methods appear to apply happily to a broad range of theatrical styles.)
This adaptation's greatest drawback is the overworked humor of Enda Walsh's book. The celebrated Irish playwright, known for spiky, unpredictable works like Penelope and The New Electric Ballroom, appears to have taken his highest-profile American project to date as a cue to go broad, trading the film's subtle exchanges for cartoonish characterizations and moments hammered so hard it's like assembling a balsa wood airplane with a wrecking ball.
The preternaturally charming de Waal appears in danger of following the writer's lead at first, affecting a pronounced Manic Pixie Dream Pianist vibe, though she eventually settles down and steers right. Too many of the supporting cast members do go too big for this small tale—though this tour launched just last week in Providence, Rhode Island, so they could level out before long. The handsome, appealing Ward, who comes to the touring cast from the London production, seems more confident in his characterization, bringing warmth and a clarion voice to Hansard and Irglová's soaring ballads.