This review was written by freelancer Andrew Weir.
I fell in love with the musical near-romance ONCE the first time I saw it. In fact, taken with the film’s sweet, nontraditional love story, I raced to the Borders across the street from Landmark Century Cinema to buy the soundtrack by musicians Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova. I’m moved by the story whenever I revisit it, which made me both very excited to see the touring production and afraid of how much would be changed in order to adapt the story to the stage.
Walking into the Oriental Theatre, I was met with Bob Crowley’s set design, a neighborhood Irish pub, the perfect backdrop for this story. Before the show, the audience is encouraged to come onstage to order a drink from the bar and mix with the cast as they jam on a few pre-show songs. The result is a fun vibe, like an open mic night, making the large space feel much more intimate.
ONCE is not your standard musical with characters singing their thoughts, rather it has the flavor of a play with music. John Tiffany’s brilliant staging combined with Steven Hoggett’s inspired movement allows the songs to be expressed not simply through vocals, but via stylized physicality. Not only is the show deftly acted, but the musicianship of the company is phenomenal, with most performers playing anywhere from two to five instruments. True to Hansard’s haunting and soulful singing, Stuart Ward’s vocals are gritty and emotional, more rock musician than Broadway star.
Overall, ONCE is akin to a black box play rather than a splashy musical. This choice keeps the show faithful to the film’s subtly sensibility, however; it makes the few overplayed moments that much more jarring. For instance, at one point a middle-aged character throws out his back performing karate moves, an unnecessary infusion of physical comedy, out of place in this simple story. Similarly, the complexity of the love story is undermined by turning subtext to text--literally. In a lovely scene between the Guy and Girl, he poses a question, she answers in Czech, and her response is translated and projected as a supertitle. This same moment occurs in the film, but the audience is trusted to fill in the blank, interpreting what she might have said. To me, these examples stem from a single objective: to keep the show accessible to as wide an audience as possible.
Despite some minor complaints, I walked away feeling very positive about the show. The story is incredibly engaging and the performances, truly astounding. Happily this tour allows more audiences to be exposed to this delightful and heart-wrenching tale, which leaves town on October 27th. Race out and see it before it’s too late.
Andrew Weir is a Chicago-based actor, writer, and director with an MFA in Theatre from Western Illinois University.