Now at the Arsht Center for the Performing Arts
By Lauren Cohen
“Once” certainly knows how to captivate an audience from the very beginning – before the show has even begun, in fact. Arrive 30 minutes before it starts, and you’ll find the stage has been transformed into an Irish pub, where audience members are welcome to come aboard and buy drinks while cast members perform.
While standing there sipping your drink - watching these talented men and women singing and playing their instruments with such vigor as they passionately stomp along to the beat - it becomes crystal clear that these performers feel for this show – and its poignant, heartfelt music – with every inch of their being. It goes beyond them being great performers; their every movement is positively beaming with passion and enthusiasm, and perhaps most importantly, a sincere love of music. And when it comes down to it, that’s exactly what “Once” is about.
Winner of the 2012 Tony Award for Best Musical and based on the 2006 indie film of the same name, this is the story of a Dublin street musician (Stuart Ward) who is about to give up on his music when he meets a vibrant young Czech woman (Dani de Waal) who is instantly drawn to his songs. As they start to create music together, their friendship soon evolves into a beautiful and complicated romance.
In many ways, “Once” is the complete antithesis to your average Broadway show. There are no big flashy musical numbers here. No sea of back-up dancers or elaborate sets. There isn’t even a traditional orchestra. Instead, when a character leaves a scene, they simply retreat to the side of the stage with their instrument where they join the other actor-musicians as they collectively take on the job as the orchestra. This is the epitome of minimalist staging, and it works completely in the show’s favor.
With a musical of this simplistic nature, a huge burden is put on the leads to carry the show and hold the audience’s attention. Thankfully, Ward and de Waal are very much up to the challenge. Ward, in particular, is astounding. Standing center stage with little more than his guitar to support him, when he sings, it’s as if everything else around you melts away. Like the film this is based on, this show may prove to be slower paced than your average musical fare.
For those in need of the constant razzle-dazzle, this may not be for them. But with its enthralling performances, inventive staging, and gorgeous, emotion-filled music (written by the stars of the film version, Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová), “Once” is a unique and memorable theater-going experience, one that serves as a charming reminder of the powerful and lasting impact music has on all of our lives.