Once Is a Wonderful Musical Theater at the Hobby Center

Stuart Ward as Guy and Dani de Waal as Girl in Once
Stuart Ward as Guy and Dani de Waal as Girl in Once
Photo by Joan Marcus

The set-up: I can say this without any qualification whatever: Once is one magnificent piece of musical theater.

Unique, extremely entertaining, filled with joyous music that limns both heartbreak and possibility, crafted with exceptional stage know-how, and put across with bold strokes of old-fashioned Broadway chutzpah, this little show fills up the mighty Hobby Center and spills out into downtown, spreading a golden warmth unlike anything else in recent memory.

The execution: As you may know, the show is adapted from John Carney's 2007 Irish indie movie, which starred struggling musicians Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová, who collaborated on the music and lyrics. Shot on a shoestring budget in and around Dublin, this little movie with its odd, sweet characters conquered worldwide, garnered an Academy Award for its haunting ballad "Falling Slowly" and reaped a very staggering profit.

The musical is faithful to its source, but the bittersweet romance between "Guy" (Stuart Ward) and "Girl" (Dani de Waal) that is the center of the show's rhythmically beating heart is elegantly and simply swathed in the best of Broadway treatments. After protracted workshops, the musical opened off-Broadway but soon transferred uptown after long lines at the box office and tremendous word-of-mouth. Moving to a larger house breathed new life into it, expanding its highly emotional tug on the audience. The show won Tony Awards for won Best Musical, Book, Director, Actor, Set Design, Lighting, Orchestrations, and Sound. Because all the songs had been previously written for the film, they were ineligible for Broadway contention.

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Under John Tiffany's diamond-sharp direction and Steven Hoggett's expressionist choreographed movement, the production flows like music. There's only one set - the interior of a seedy Dublin music club - but scene transitions are flawlessly executed by the musician/actors (every character plays an instrument) who push on a piano or carry a chair, or just get out of the way, until someone new sits at a table or sprawls across the upstage bar, and the next scene begins immediately. With musical underscoring, these transitions are movie quick, keeping us right in the mood and eager to go on. Bob Crowley's pub set is a beauty, all brick wall with countless framed mirrors and low lamps. The way it's used, we could be anywhere, the point for this timeless story of unrequited love.

Yes, we're definitely in Dublin (where men are blokes and women earthy), but the show's appeal is universal. Singer/songwriter "Guy," dispirited and on the brink of giving up all dreams of a life in music, meets oddball "Girl," a Czech immigrant, whose honest, sensitive reaction to his music reveals a kindred soul. Her encouragement spurs him on. A clumsy pass turns her off, but soon all is mended, and Guy and Girl make plans for a recording. Needless to say, there are complications for these two music makers who have both "stopped." The ache of former love, the resignation of current commitment, and the irresistible draw that each feels when under the spell of their music is impossible to resist. Though the subsidiary characters are etched with enough twee-factor for a dozen John Ford movies, they are a beloved lot and always get the requisite laugh whenever these faux leprechauns do their shtick. (They sing and play like angels sent from Joyce.)

Hansard and Irglová's score is exceedingly atmospheric, with plenty of Celtic folk twang filtered through a middle European haze. The songs are beautifully distinct and new, and every now and then a phrase that hints of Dvořák or Janáček peeps through the cello, mandolin, or accordion riffs. Each number is a miniature aria, different from the last but still alike in emotional truth and loveliness of phrase. There's nothing in recent theater to compare with anthem "Gold," performed by all a capella in a stunning reprise; or the Girl's tender piano rendition of "The Hill;" not to mention the show's gold standard, Guy's "Falling Slowly." You really do leave the theater humming (and walking on air).

The leads are incredibly likable and talented as hell. Ward wails emotionally and plays one mean guitar, but never turns edgy or whiny. Stalwart even when down, "Guy" is gentle and kind, the sexy downcast boy next door. De Waal, as delightfully off-center naif, is a most pleasing physical comedienne who never allows "Girl" to become more angelic or ethereal a muse than necessary. For all their scars, both characters are decent and caring, and that goes far with us. We never tire of them, that's for sure, and their parting heartache is as artful as it is heartbreaking.

The conclusion: Many glories await in Once. It's a distinct work for the musical stage, a one-off that can't be copied. Like the creamiest of Guinness stouts, this intimate love story packs a quiet punch. Here, you drink it under the most sublime limelight, woozy, warm, and fulfilling. Go and taste what a contemporary musical is capable of doing. The melodies linger on.

Once continues through March 15. Broadway at the Hobby. Hobby Center for the Performing Arts, 800 Bagby. Purchase tickets online at.thehobbycenter.org or call 713-315-2525. $30-$115.


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