Review: “Once”

RECOMMENDED

Where: Oriental Theatre, 24 W. Randolph St.
When: through Oct. 27
Tickets: $27-$95
Phone: 800-775-2000

By ANNE SPISELMAN
Theater Critic

I was charmed by the 2007 indie film, “Once,” written and directed by John Carney and starring Glen Hansard as an Irish singer-songwriter “stopped up” by a romance-on-the-rocks and Marketa Irglova as the Czech immigrant musician who helps him get his life back. By the Tony Award-winning musical: not as much as I expected.

It’s not that the first national tour now at the Oriental Theatre doesn’t have a lot to recommend. It does. (More about this in a minute.) My main problem, I suspect, was that I was sitting near the back of the huge Oriental Theatre, so all the intimacy of this very intimate show was lost. “Once” depends for its emotional power on the delicate relationship that develops between the Guy (Stuart Ward) and the Girl (Dani de Waal), but their facial expressions and the other nuances aren’t visible from a distance, at least not from row W. 

In addition, although the sound system was decent enough that I could hear almost everything, at times I couldn’t even see who was singing or speaking. Bob Crowley’s scenic design suggests a homey pub – audience members can come on stage and buy a beer before curtain time – and a real one, or at least a smaller theater, would make a better setting. 
A second issue, which I also had with the movie to a lesser extent, stems from the fact that I grew up listening to terrific singer-songwriters like Pete Seeger, Tom Paxton and Paul Simon. The characters here keep telling the Guy and Girl that their music is “great,” but except for the best-known “Falling Slowly,“ “The Hill” and a couple of other songs, the music and lyrics by Hansard and Irglova strike me as on pretty much the same level as loads of other singer-songwriters who haven’t made it.
On the bright side, while the musical follows the movie pretty closely, playwright Enda Walsh’s book isn’t a slavish copy. He brings a convincing depth to some of the scenes and welcome doses of humor to others. 
Director John Tiffany’s imaginative staging is equally impressive. Rather than relying on multiple sets mimicking the movie‘s many locations, he uses simple props manipulated by the ensemble members to change the settings around the performers. A couple of chairs conjure up the vacuum cleaner repair shop of the Guy’s Da (Raymond Bokhour); several tables become the apartment of the Girl’s extended family. When a scene is being enacted, more often than not, the other actors, who all double as musicians, sit on the sidelines. 

One of the exceptions is a meeting between the Guy and Girl on a hill overlooking the twinkling lights of Dublin. The touching encounter highlights the near hopelessness of their romance, relying on a clever reversal of the translation (from Czech) process to do so. 
Less successful is the “movement” choreographed by Steven Hoggett. Sections of several numbers use stylized routines that are supposed to arise organically from the material, but to me they seem contrived and artificial. In some instances, real choreography might have been better; in others, I would have preferred no movement at all.

While several of the supporting performance come across as overly broad, even cartoonish, Bokhour is affectingly understated as Da. Ward sings and acts capably as the Guy, but I confess I find this character sadly self-absorbed and far less interesting than the Girl. De Waal starts out with all the appealing spunk and bossiness that the role requires, but she doesn’t quite mine the character’s complexity and melancholy later on.
The overall high level of musicianship is evident from the outset, a pre-show mini Irish “sessions” featuring mostly traditional folk songs. My advice if you’re going to see “Once” – and you probably should – is to spring for a seat fairly close to the stage and arrive early. On balance, I enjoyed it, though once may have been enough.