Stuart Ward and Dani de Waal (at piano) in Once, The Musical.


Once, The Musical

Music & lyrics by Glen Hansard & Markéta Iglová
Book by Enda Walsh
Directed by John Tiffany

Review by Kathi E.B. Ellis

Entire contents are copyright © 2012 Kathi E. B. Ellis. All rights reserved

Once is actually only one of a long line of stage adaptations of movie musicals. Once also fits into the increasingly popular mold of musicals in which the actor-singer-dancers also play instruments. The production, which opened Tuesday at the Whitney Hall as part of the current Broadway in Louisville series, has a Kentucky connection: Steve Kazee, who won the 2012 Tony Award for Best Actor in a Musical, is a graduate of Morehead State University.

As with the movie, the stage version tracks the relationship of Guy and Girl who meet on a Dublin street, are drawn together through their music, and manage to record an album in a 24-hour session that week. Originally played by Glen Hansard and Markéta Iglová, the story is somewhat autobiographical and there is an almost documentary type feel to the low budget movie. The good news is that where it really counts the stage adaptation is true to the original and there is no manufactured happy ending between these two; on the other hand, the fact that these two are attracted to each other is made far more explicit in Enda Walsh’s script which, while it may ratchet up the potential for conflict, takes away from the mystery of the original relationship.

Nonetheless, there is much to like about this winsome and quirky not-quite love story, not-quite local-boy-makes-good story. To begin with the two leads Stuart Ward (Guy) and Dani De Waal (Girl) are absolutely charming, in an awkward sort of way, and their voices blend perfectly in Hansard’s haunting music. The tight ensemble of twelve performers adds to the intimacy and intensity of the story – they are all equally at home taking center stage as characters and contributing to the intricate musical fabric of the piece (orchestrations by Martin Lowe).

Bob Crowley’s Irish bar setting is a homey backdrop against which this story can unfold and a neat conceit to handle the myriad locations; the mirrored walls are inspired and create some delightful effects within Natasha Katz’ evocative lighting design. Katz’ work comes into its own in the most effective and emotionally satisfying scene of the evening, when Guy takes Girl up into the hills that look down on the city. As the bar room goes dark, the pinpoint lights of the city scape shimmer into view over what had been the bar, the floor, and one of the characters lying on the floor – simple and brilliant – the two actors on an upper level are silhouetted against a saturated blue which minimally suggests the outdoor hillside. (One quibble is that it would be worth saving this effect for that moment, rather than introducing it in a bizarrely non-naturalistic movement sequence during one of Girl’s earlier solos.)

Less effective for me was the expansion of the roles of some of the minor characters. While it makes sense to streamline the number of roles in the production, it’s problematic that the band that records the album is drawn from people with whom they’re already interacted (the music store owner, the bank manager – who can’t sing, however good his playing is – and the Czech neighbors) rather than the street buskers that Guy knows as a musician. This convention does allow for more conflict and comedy, but quickly begins to feel like filler – the primary story could be effected as a long one act musical, sending everyone home fulfilled. And the most satisfying scenes are those in which the dialogue from the movie is replicated. There are too many times when script writer Walsh and director John Tiffany go for the broad and easy moment to elicit an audience laugh – as if they don’t quite trust us to stay with the quiet and quirky that is what made Once, the movie, successful for those who fell in love with it.

Director Tiffany and Movement Coach Steve Hoggett have been wowing audiences with their kinesthetic approach to heightened realism in several high profile Broadway productions and imports. Here, it doesn’t quite connect. Stylistically, the hyper-fast scene changes and the psychological gestures and movement clash too much with the fidgety naturalism of the book scenes – and the contradistinction doesn’t bring us any substantial revelations about the story or the characters.

I suspect that Once the stage musical is more successful for audiences who haven’t seen the movie – for once the stage version is bigger and more expanded than the movie version: there are characters whom we don’t really need to spend as much time with and extended movement sequences that add little to story development. However, the music, that which binds Guy and Girl together initially, is still sublime and Ward and de Waal bring the songs – Tony winner ‘Falling Slowly’ and ‘The Hill’ in particular – and the growing relationship alive with delicacy, humor, and that awkwardness that can so often be part of the first steps in a new relationship.

Once, The Musical

January 20-25, 2015

PNC Broadway in Louisville
Kentucky Center
501 West Main Street
Louisville, KY, 40202


kathi e.b. ellis headshot color[box_light]Kathi E.B. Ellis is a member of the Lincoln Center and Chicago Directors’ Labs and an associate member of the Stage Directors & Choreographers Society. She has attended the LaMama Directing Symposium in Umbria, Italy, and is featured in Southern Artisty, an online registry of outstanding Southern Artists.  Her directing work has been recognized with nominations for the South Florida Theatre Carbonell Award.  Locally, Kathi is a member of Looking for Lilith Theatre Company, a founding principal of StageLab theatre training studio, and is part of ShoeString Productions an informal producing collective. She has written book reviews and articles for Southern Theatre, the quarterly publication of the Southeastern Theatre Conference, and was a contributing writer for JCPS’ textbook for the 11th grade Arts and Humanities survey course and for YouthArts Tapestry, a Kentucky Arts Council publication.[/box_light]