Once by Hennepin Theatre Trust, at the Orpheum Theatre

Stuart Ward and Dani de Waal in Once.  Photo by Joan Marcus.

Stuart Ward and Dani de Waal in Once. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Compare the focused intimacy of Once (at the Orpheum, through April 6) with the over-the-top, big-bang-for-your-buck musicals recently produced in the same venue.  Phantom Of The Opera, Evita, The Book Of Mormon, et al. Once contains no gee-whiz, that-musta-costa-fortune scenic effects. No high-falutin orchestrations. No operatic, sung-through music. No cast of dozens. No hidden orchestra.  Indeed, imo, Once is more a play-with-music than a full-fledged musical.

The story is simplicity itself: Guy is busking on the streets of Dublin, playing his acoustic with the case open for meager tips. Fed up and disgusted with the lack of recognition, disgusted with music itself, he slams his guitar down into the case, and starts to walk away.

At which point, Girl (the leads lack names) stops him. She’s a Czech immigrant, an accomplished pianist, and she projects intense and luminous beauty. Girl will not allow Guy to give up.  Together, they get a loan, rent a studio, hire a crew of decidedly oddball musicians, and assemble a demo tape of Guy’s decidedly brilliant songs. Girl challenges Guy musically; he challenges her emotionally. At one point she says, in Czech, “I love you.” When he asks what she said, she replies, “It’s going to rain.” Both are in loveless relationships. The attraction between them is fierce. Will they get together? Naturally I’ve no intention of revealing the denouement. Playwright Enda Walsh wrote Once‘s terrific book.

Ah, but the real star of Once, and the main reason to see the show, is the lush and lovely music. All the actors play Irish-style instruments, e.g., acoustic guitars, mandolins, fiddles, etc (and, indeed, the play begins with the cast playing some energized and very tasty Irish music). The actors accompany the songs. The orchestration is unembellished, straight-forward – and perfect. The songs soar.

And what songs! Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová composed the music for the 2007 film in which they also starred; many of the songs have been retained for this theatrical version. The Academy Award winning “Falling Slowly” is a standout, ditto Guy’s “Gold,” Girl’s “The Hill.” Wonderful stuff, perfectly (and minimalistically) staged, by director John Tiffany.

Performances delight. As Guy and Girl, Stuart Ward and Dani de Waal deliver bang-up performances. They sing the music exquisitely and whenever they’re together the play takes off.  Everybody is excellent; I was particularly taken with Evan Harrington as Billy.

All right. I would be remiss in my duties as a theater reviewer if I didn’t point out that the Orpheum, a theatrical sardine can, lacks intimacy. My lovely companion and I sat in the fifth row. The production worked gang-busters for us; I’m not sure this was true in the cheap seats. Often, the cast was forced into a fakey, pumped-up, playing-to-the-back-row style. Who can blame them? I really hope that another theater (Latté Da, Mixed Blood, or maybe even Ten Thousand Things) plays Once in a smaller venue.

But if you don’t care to wait two years for a production that may never happen, see this show. It’s marvelous.

For more info about John Olive please visit his website.

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