Produced by Broadway in Chicago
Beloved Musical Once Back for Too Short a Time
Since Once is about a fleeting moment of love amid a series of departures, it is appropriate that the 2012 musical which swept the Tonys and nearly every other major award would only return to Chicago for a week. Though the tour must by now be nearing the end of its long journey, the cast still performs with the energy of opening night. Once broke the conventional wisdom regarding what a Broadway hit looks like: it was adapted from a quiet, independent Irish film that went on to win Academy Awards, and the Cadillac Palace is a very large venue for a work of this nature. However, the music is so lovely, and performed so well, that it makes sense Broadway in Chicago would host it where as many people as possible could get a chance to see it.
The leading man, called Guy (Alex Nee through June 4, Ryan Link on June 5-7, both filling in for Stuart Ward), is a Dublin vacuum repairman and street guitarist whose life has become “stuck.” A year ago his mother died, and six months ago the woman he wrote his songs for cheated on him and moved to New York City. They never formally broke up. At the beginning of the play, he is playing one of his songs, “Leave,” for another woman, called Girl (Dani de Waal), a stranger, who is deeply moved, and just happens to have a vacuum in need of repair. They like each other, and Girl pushes Guy to play more of his original songs, since she is a pianist and has a passion for music herself. He is so talented, she takes it upon herself to arrange for him to record a demo album within two days of their first meeting.
Of course, they fall in love, but Once doesn’t make things that easy. Girl is a Czech immigrant, married, and has a two year old daughter. Though she and the father are estranged, she believes it is important for little Ivanka (Sarah McKinley Austin) to have a relationship with her father, and always presents her production of the album to Guy as a way for him to win back his girlfriend. Though he wrote his songs for the other woman, part of the reason for Guy’s loss of motivation is that he can no longer sincerely sing them for her, so instead, he sings them for the Girl. But pain is such a strong theme in his music, the show would betray itself by offering an easy solution, and its charm is in its focus on moments that are special for their brevity.
There are differences between the movie and musical. Guy is much more dysfunctional in Enda Walsh’s adaptation than he was in John Carney’s original. Girl always takes the initiative, and has to coax him much more just to get a few words. Walsh also added an hour to the story by fleshing out several minor characters, who become back-up musicians. The actors, who play their own instruments, are all fun and highly talented, but I found the long pauses and moments of quirky banter vexing. It makes sense to reference the economic downturn Ireland went into between the making of the movie and musical, and the Czechs provide some variety to the music, but I would have liked for the pacing to have been tighter. Director John Tiffany uses a bar for a non-literal setting, which puts the audience into a relaxed mood before the show, and provides an array of mirrors to emphasize the show’s reflective tone. Natasha Katz’s lighting design was among the most beautiful I’ve seen, Steven Hoggett’s movement direction keeps perfectly with the show’s subtlety.
But really, Once is about the music, and that remains entirely intact. The Irish folk songs, with occasional Bohemian interjections, are contemplative, but the emotional strength in Nee and de Wall’s performances inject them with energy that is not lessened in strength by generally being calm. My personal favorite song is “If You Want Me,” a chilling melody about missing somebody, sung by de Waal and two back-up singers, joined by Nee and his guitar half-way through. But the show’s signature song, “Falling Slowly” demonstrates how the same piece of music can encompass both tumultuous moments in the present and acceptance looking back, and “Gold,” the final song of Act I, is optimistic in a clear-headed way.
Once is a rare musical which through a slightly stylized story, highly creative presentation, and memorable, beautiful music, creates a genuinely empathetic experience. Northwestern alum Alex Nee will be a star, and I’m confident under this direction that Ryan Link will be just as good. Dani de Waal matches her counterpart in singing and charisma, and the rest of the cast play their instruments under the captaincy of John Steven Gardner with attentiveness and love for the show. This is a wonderful theatrical experience, and I’m glad Broadway and Broadway in Chicago producers recognized it, and audiences have flocked to it.
Reviewed June 2, 2015
For more information, see Once’s page on Theatre in Chicago.
Playing at the Cadillac Palace Theatre, 151 W Randolph, Chicago. Tickets are $30-95; to order, call 800-775-200, or visit www.BroadwayInChicago.com. Playing Wednesday at 2:00 pm and 7:30 pm, Thursday and Friday at 7:30 pm, Saturday at 2:00 pm and 7:30 pm, and Sunday at 2:00 pm. Running time is two hours and thirty minutes with one intermission.