Sometimes execution can be everything. It certainly is in the case of Once, the multiple Tony-winning Best Musical of 2012. The story and the songs are the same as those in the film on which it is based (a movie I found quite unbearable), and yet as brought to freshly inspired life on the musical theater stage, Once The Musical turns out to be one of the best, and quite possibly the most original Broadway smashes, of the past decade.
I must admit to being in the minority where Once The Movie is concerned. With an 88 from Metacritic.com and an imdb rating of 8.0, the 2007 tale of a Dublin street musician still pining for his ex and a married-with-child Czech immigrant’s whirlwind weekend of songwriting and love was the darling of movie critics and indie movie fans alike.
Still, I found myself agreeing with the small but vocal minority of imdb reviewers who judged Once to be badly written, ineptly acted, pretentious, and worst of all, deadly dull.
Once The Musical is another thing entirely.
Yes, Enda Walsh’s book tells basically the same story as the movie’s. We still have busker “Guy” meeting immigrant “Girl” (the pretention of their no-namedness remains) when she asks him to fix her broken Hoover, then reveals that she like he is an aspiring musician and songwriter. We still have the couple deciding over the course of the aforementioned whirlwind several days to record a demo CD and in the process falling in love. And the ending—whether it’s the right one or the wrong one I’ll leave it to you to decide—remains unchanged as well.
Unlike director John Carney’s screenplay, however, Walsh’s words sound real in the way that improvised dialog (which is how the movie’s felt) rarely does.
The songs (by the film’s stars Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová) are those from the movie as well, and whether it’s simply that they sound better after several listening, or that Alex Nee and Dani de Waal sing them so sensationally on the Segerstrom Center For The Arts stage, I must confess to having acquired a taste for their Irish Indie Pop sound.
Most significant among the changes wrought by stage director John Tiffany (who won one of the musical’s eight Tony awards) is Tiffany’s decision to have all the action unfold in a Dublin pub, the entire supporting ensemble onstage from well before curtain* to the cast’s final bows, the ten of them not only portraying Once’s featured characters but accompanying each other on accordion, banjo, cello, concertina, drums, electric bass, guitar, harmonica, mandolin, percussion, ukulele, and violin.
Yes, John Doyle employed this actors-as-musicians concept in his West End-to-Broadway revivals of Sweeney Todd and Company and Patrick Pearson did so locally in his brilliantly reconceived Orange County production of A New Brain back in 2008.
Still, whether absolutely original or not, this concept works to perfection in Once The Musical, particularly since Guy & Girl’s story is as much about making music as it is about making love. It makes sense to have Guy’s repair shop owner father, the studio engineer they approach about making Guy’s demo, the bank manager they go to for a loan, and the pub regulars they enlist as musicians be part of Once’s ten-piece orchestra (twelve if you count Guy on guitar and Girl on piano), the ten of them seated on opposite sides of the stage when not stepping into and out of roles as needed.
And quite a sensational ensemble they are. Raymond Bokhour as Da, Matt DeAngelis as Švec, John Steven Gardner as Eamon, Donna Garner as Baruška, Ryan Link as Emcee, Benjamin Magnuson as Bank Manager, understudy Zander Meisner as Andrej, Erica Swindell as Ex-Girlfriend, Claire Wellin as Réza, and understudy Matt Wolpe as Billy simply could not be more multitalented, with special snaps to Bokhour’s grizzled, bearded Da with a heart as deep as the sea, deAngelis’s kooky Czech drummer with a penchant for tearing off his pants, Magnuson’s sweet banker with a hilariously out-of-tune voice, Meisner’s dorky fast food clerk with big dreams, and most especially Wolpe’s great big bear of a music shop owner withuot an iota of social skills. (Child actress Kolette Tetlow appears briefly and winningly as girl’s daughter Ivanka.)
Still, Once would not work nearly as well as it does without a stellar pair of leads in roles requiring not only power pipes but dramatic-comedic chops as well, and in this respect both Nee and de Waal deliver the goods and then some.
Understudy Nee steps up from his usual assignment as Andrej to make a memorable Opening Night debut as Guy, combining boy-next-door looks and charm, a rocker’s edge, terrific vocals, and an authentic, deeply-felt way with spoken words.
As for Guy’s Girl, de Wall, who originated the part in this First National Tour, simply could not be more captivating, and like Nee, she’s got pipes and acting chops to match.
Tiffany’s direction could hardly be more inspired, from his imaginative use of scenic designer Bob Crawley’s multi-mirrored pub set (which transforms into the musical’s multiple locales thanks in part to lighting design legend Natasha Katz) to the way he integrates onstage musicians into the story to the performances given by the musical’s all-Equity touring cast. (Their spectacular “When Your Mind’s Made Up” will simply blow you away.)
Choreographer Steven Hoggett scored a deserved Tony nomination for Once’s exquisite “movement” (that’s what he’s credited for in the program), a perfect integration of strumming strings and bodies in motion.
Martin Lowe merits applause for his music supervision and orchestration and Stephen Gibbs for his dialect coaching, though Irish brogues in general and Girl’s Czech accent in particular can get a tad too thick for American ears to grasp.
Additional design kudos go to Crowley for his natty costumes and Clive Goodwin for his sound design, in addition to Once’s many assistant directors and designers.
Daniel S. Rosokoff is production stage manager, Chris Danner company manager, and Lisa M. Poyer general manager.
Whether having seen and adored Once The Musical will inspire me to give Once The Movie another try is something only time will tell. I do, however, know that seeing Once The Musical only once is simply not enough.
Once you see Once, I think you’ll agree.
*Audience members can elect to go up onstage before the show where wine and beer are for sale as the cast performs.
Note: Cast members Nee and Link will alternate as Guy throughout the entire Costa Mesa run.
Segerstrom Center For The Arts, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa.
August 19, 2014
Photos: Joan Marcus