“ONCE,” a truly original stage experience has captured eight Tony Awards including the 2012 best Broadway musical. The theatrical presentation is adapted from the 2006 low budget independent Irish film which attracted a massive cult fan base. The on stage production will entice first time viewers (many I’ve talk to are unaware of the show’s history), while encouraging theatre patrons to view the engaging and heartwarming film once again.
It’s a modern-day musical about a sidewalk busker (billed only as “Guy”) and a Czech immigrant (billed only as “Girl”) and their eventful week in Dublin, as they write, rehearse and record songs that tell their love story. A scintillating cast of actor/musicians play their own instruments (the guitar forms the backbone of the orchestrations, with a collection of other instruments in action including two violins, accordion, cello, piano, and boxes which function as drums). Their lusty singing of the melodies weaving through this enchanted boy-loses-girl-then bumps-into-another-girl tale keeps toes tappin’ and hands clappin’. Guy is a thirty-something street musician sunk in depression who’s about to abandon his cherished hope of a musical career. His grief fallout is from a failed romantic relationship following the departure of his girlfriend. She’s sailed across the pond to work in New York. The break up has destroyed his confidence. He now works as a vacuum cleaner repairman in his father’s shop. This situation becomes the source of amusement during the course of the story.
One day, during his impromptu street concert, a young woman (“Girl”), the mother of a young daughter, and separated from her husband, stops to observe and listen. Beguiled by his haunting love songs, she approaches him with encouragement, insisting he has the talent to succeed. Ironically, her “hoover” at home is broken which becomes the catalyst to the establishment of a friendly association. Girl informs Guy her vacuum “does not suck,” and asks him to fix it. A skilled pianist, she offers to pay for the repair by playing for him (she also writes music). In an atmosphere of instant mutual comfort Girl takes charge of Guy’s rehabilitation, resourcefully organizing a bank loan to cover the cost of recording his work for submission to music producers.
Girl is like an angel to Guy, their bonding launching a growing chemistry, elevating his music as well as their emotional feelings to new heights, though Girl is unwilling to become entangled in intimacies because of her domestic situation. Their unlikely union turns out to be deeper and more complex than your everyday romance, making this untypical love story a captivating theatrical confection drawing emotional sympathy from patrons.
They play together in a music shop which tightens the friendship that binds them, but, like the film, the musical resists the temptation of a conventional happy ending. There’s a bitter-sweet tone, like a modern-day brief encounter between two people who meet, enjoy each other’s company, then continue on separate paths. There are no regrets, only pleasant memories. Audiences are charged with inserting their own conclusions based on the lottery of life.
Trish Lindstrom as “Girl,” plays the character with quiet determination and assertive reserve, yet brimming with optimism. Trish’s very secure in her acting, singing, and piano talents which have been valuable assets in her Stratford and Shaw Festivals career. Trish has also performed with Hamilton’s Theatre Aquarius.
Ian Lake gives a nice guy demeanor to “Guy” with a dollop of underdog insecurities. The actor has also been a guest with Theatre Aquarius as well as performing the classical repertoire at the Shaw and Stratford Festivals.
The songs by Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová (who both starred in the film), based on their personal experience, are mostly sad, wistful and melodic (“Falling Slowly” won a film Oscar for Best Original Song). Here the song anchors the plot, settling into memory and liberating unconscious humming on the way out of the theatre. Occasionally the tunes puff up to a head of steam, becoming somewhat soulful, but avoiding descent into a gloomy whirlpool.
The minimalist set includes an imaginary bar which is used before the show and at intermission as a working bar for theater patrons. But in between, the romanticism and emotional pull is a magnet for audience involvement. An atmosphere of genuine tenderness permeates, as we sense these two individuals are more than our casual friends. The dialogue leans to simplistic logic that upholds the plot’s charm, but there’s certain exasperation to Guy’s gullibility in recognizing that Girl obviously loves him. The situation therefore offers a better chance of happiness than if he went back to his old girlfriend.
“ONCE” draws you in from the very first note and never lets go. It’s a haunting story about going for your dreams and the force of music. I saw “Once,” once….have now seen “Once,” twice….looking ahead to see “Once,” thrice. A charismatic musical fable stirring emotions, the show is a double wrapping of lyrical love for music and personal heart and soul devotion.
“Once” is onstage at Toronto’s Ed Mirvish Theatre through May 31st.