Within the space of a few bars of music, “Once” transports its audience to an intimate Dublin pub. It’s a kind of alchemy made even more potent because it happens without the slightest bit of artifice. One minute we’re in the Opera House, where the Tony Award-winning musical is playing through Jan. 19, and the next minute, with the house lights still up and audience members still mingling with the musicians onstage, a swirl of music sweeps us up into a simple, romantic tale of loneliness and hope.
The plot line of “Once” doesn’t begin to capture the magic of this stage production, which unites music, acting, and movement in emotionally powerful ways. “Once,” which started out as a 2007 film and went on to become a cult favorite, picking up an Oscar for best song along the way for “Falling Slowly,” revolves around Guy (Stuart Ward), a heartbroken Irish singer-songwriter and musician at the end of his creative rope. His wrenching performance of “Leave” catches the ear of Girl (Dani de Waal), a Czech immigrant who hears the raw, emotional power of his song and determines to prevent him from giving up on his music or his love.
I know, it sounds a little “twee,” especially when the characters have to deliver lines like “I won’t allow you to walk away from your music,” and “those who live in fear die miserably in their grave.” But the beauty of this musical is the way in which even these lines are delivered with unadorned sincerity. Director John Tiffany has found a way to connect the audience directly to the emotional heart of the story, through the extraordinarily understated but richly nuanced performances of his 13-member ensemble.
Not only does every performer have a gorgeous, distinctly unique vocal quality (no one sounds like a typical Broadway singer), but they each play at least one instrument, and act their hearts out as quirky sidekicks for the two main characters. Ward’s Guy wears his heart on his sleeve and yet manages to be shyly determined. As the forthright Girl, de Waal avoids becoming too strident and projects a sense of acceptance rather than resignation.
Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova’s music is full of poignant, elegiac flights of longing and sadness, often played out in a minor key. The tunes are given an unexpected richness with the accompaniment of the onstage actor-musicians who play an assortment of instruments that include concertina, cello, guitars, violin, piano, mandolin, banjo, ukulele, and even a melodica. The orchestrations add a level of complexity to the tunes without overwhelming them, and the virtuosity of the performers is simply fun to watch.
As if the combination of singing, acting, and playing instruments weren’t enough, Steve Hoggett’s movement yet adds another layer to the story. The movements are modest and yet manage to convey enormous emotion. The movement in “If You Want Me,” which is sung by de Waal, creates an evocative sense of sympathy and connection among three of the women. In addition, Hoggett choreographs wonderfully dynamic scene changes that are dances in themselves but never distract or detract from the action.
“Once” casts a delightfully subtle and utterly absorbing spell you won’t want to shake.