Thursday, February 11, 2016

Review: Once

Once, by Enda Walsh, Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova, directed by John Tiffany, movement by Steven Hoggett, set and costumes by Bob Crowley. Featuring Dani DeWaal and Stuart Ward. Reviewed by Wendy Rosenfield

Review: Once


By Wendy Rosenfield
For The Inquirer

The musical Once, currently enjoying its first national tour, is a far simpler affair than all its awards (among them, eight Tonys, one Grammy) accolades, and devotees might otherwise indicate. Adapted from John Carney’s 89-minute independent film, which was even simpler than its staged twin, Once follows a Dublin busker boy and Czech immigrant girl over the course of a week as they make beautiful music together.

Both onscreen and onstage versions feature Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova’s Lumineers-y romantic stompalongs and wistful ballads for solo and duet, all heavy on minor chord yearning. It’s a show for, about and probably by young lovers; think an anodyne Brief Encounter, if such a thing is possible. Even if the stakes aren’t so high, every decision seems loaded with what-if fears of creating a butterfly effect on an uncertain future. 

Irish playwright Enda Walsh, best known for his far darker, bloodier Disco Pigs and New Electric Ballroom, was an odd choice to write the book for such an airy source. But he added at least a minimal amount of conflict and comedy to the tale of Guy and Girl (Stuart Ward and Dani DeWaal) in the form of Billy (Evan Harrington), a garrulous music store owner prone to temper tantrums. 

Still, their story remains secondary to the music, and Walsh’s script, John Tiffany’s direction, Steven Hoggett’s movement and Bob Crowley’s design first serve the emotions raised by that music. The barroom set’s walls hang with dusty, fading mirrors. A hefty cast lines up on either side of the action seated in wooden chairs, cradling guitars, mandolins, an accordion, ukulele, fiddle, banjo, and other stringed or percussive instruments, ready to step in or hand its principals a prop. This staging works not just as a whimsical assist, but also as a lesson in how writing or adapting for the stage begs invention and suspension of reality, not the heavy-handed blackouts and set changes we see all too often. 

While Ward lacks the gritty manliness of his predecessors, he and DeWaal are youthful, cute and impassioned, the only non-musical qualities their roles truly require. I prefer my Walsh straight up, with plenty of there there, but Once simply wants to raise a pint (go ahead and buy one at the onstage bar), tug on some heartstrings and share a few catchy tunes. So hey, slainte and cheers to its success. 

Playing at: Academy of Music, Broad and Locust Sts., Philadelphia. Through Sun., Nov. 10. Tickets: $20 to $100. Information: 215-731-3333 or

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About this blog

Toby Zinman's night job since 2006 is theater critic for the Inquirer where she reviews New York and London as well as Philadelphia. Her day job: Prize-winning prof at UArts, author of five books about modern and contemporary drama, and doer of scholarly deeds (winner of five NEH grants, Fulbright lecturer at Tel Aviv University, visiting professor in China). She was recently named by American Theatre magazine "one of the twelve most influential critics in America."

Wendy Rosenfield has written freelance features and theater reviews for The Inquirer since 2006. She was theater critic for the Philadelphia Weekly from 1995 to 2001, after which she enjoyed a five-year baby-raising sabbatical. She serves on the board of the American Theatre Critics Association, was a participant in the Bennington Writer's Workshop, a 2008 NEA/USC Fellow in Theater and Musical Theater, and twice was guest critic for the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival's Region II National Critics Institute. She received her B.A. from Bennington College and her M.L.A. from the University of Pennsylvania. She also is a fiction writer, was proofreader to a swami, publications editor for the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, and spends all her free time working out and driving people places. Follow her on Twitter @WendyRosenfield.

Jim Rutter has reviewed theater for The Inquirer since September, 2011. Since 2006, he covered dance, theater and opera for the Broad Street Review, and has also written for many suburban newspapers, including The Main Line Times. In 2009, the National Endowment for the Arts awarded him a Fellowship in Arts Journalism. Thames & Hudson released his updated and revised version of Ballet and Modern Dance in June, 2012. From 1998 to 2005, he taught philosophy and logic at Drexel, and then Widener University. He also coaches Olympic Weightlifting for Liberty Barbell, and has competed at the national level in that sport since 2001.

Merilyn Jackson regularly writes on dance for The Inquirer and other publications. She specializes in the arts, literature, food, travel, and Eastern European culture and politics. In 2001, she was dance critic in residence at the Festival of Contemporary Dance in Bytom, Poland; in 2005, she received an NEA Critics’ Fellowship to Duke University’s Institute for Dance Criticism. She likes to say that dance was her first love but that when she discovered writing she began to cheat on dance. Now that she writes about dance, she’s made an honest woman of herself, although she also writes poetry.

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