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 KimmelCenter.org/Broadway

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