Musicals – they just don’t do them like they used to, and maybe that’s a good thing.
Musicals like Jonathan Larson’s “Rent” ushered in a new era of contemporary musicals that flourished and conquered the Great White Way. Moving away from the traditional form, these new musicals changed the very culture of Broadway as we know it. Joining the likes of recent Broadway greats such as “Spring Awakening” and “The Book of Mormon” is “Once” — the 2012 Tony-sweeper that opened in San Francisco on the Curran Stage on Tuesday.
“Once”, based on the 2007 Irish independent film of the same name, tells a familiar story. A boy meets a girl. They make music together. They fall in love. In the film, real-life musicians Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova star as the two main characters known simply as Guy and Girl. Together they wrote, composed and performed all of the original songs for the film. With its captivating soundtrack, Hansard and Irglova’s obscure indie film found itself at the 2007 Oscars and won Best Original Song for the ballad “Falling Slowly.”
The musical retains much of the brutality and naturalistic appeal of its predecessor. Unlike a typical Broadway show, “Once” doesn’t feature tap numbers, elaborate revolving sets or full-size hidden orchestras. In fact, the entire show takes place in an antiquated Dublin bar – one designed by Bob Crowley and lit by Natasha Katz, both of whom have won Tony Awards for their design work. Taking live theater to a whole new level, before the show and during intermission, audience members are invited to mingle with cast members and encouraged to grab a pint or two from the makeshift bar.
Ultimately, the heart of the musical masterpiece lies simply and totally in its melancholic yet majestic score and the actor-musicians on stage who bring the melodic tunes to life. They are contemporary multi-instrumentalists and dancers with Broadway voices and a collective talent that far exceeds that of your average Broadway cast.
In the stage show, the guy (Stuard Ward) is an Irish busker by night and a “Hoover repairman” (the Irish term for vacuum) by day. Heartbroken by his ex-girlfriend who moved to New York months before, he expresses his frustration in song through the opening number “Leave”. The girl (Dani de Waal), who is in the audience, is moved by the performance and insists he stares “Hoover” at her. In return, she would pay him in music. The two meet up in a music store and perform the haunting “Falling Slowly” together. She pushes him to pursue his musical dreams and eventually helps him create a demo. Somewhere along the way, they fall in love despite their other romantic entanglements. Beautiful music follows.
De Waal dazzles and impresses as a girl. The British actress perfectly captures both the eccentric and charismatic charm of the character while highlighting her strengths and struggles as a single mother in a foreign land. Aside from “Falling Slowly” and the dynamic ensemble numbers, “Gold” and “When Your Mind’s Made Up”, De Waal’s “If You Want Me” and “The Hill” are the two most captivating and seductive performances of all the work. .
“Once” is the kind of musical that will make you feel completely inadequate. The talent of the performers and the transformative power of the musical score are extremely overwhelming – in the best sense of the word. It’s a delicately crafted theatrical gem unlike any other and will remind audiences of what really makes a great musical – the music.
“Once” plays at Curran Theater in San Francisco until July 13.
Michelle Lin covers the theater. Contact her at [email protected].