All Things Entertaining and Cultural
As a character given no name but simply called Guy, lead actor Stuart Ward embodies the quiet complexity, inner sweetness, pure heart, and cautious ambition of “Once,” the 2012 Tony Award-winning musical gracing Philadelphia’s Academy of Music, its third stop on a season-long tour across the United States.
Ward’s gift is being natural. Even when Guy is miffed, frustrated, or hurt, Ward shows his control, his habit of keeping his deepest feelings within himself and taking everyday life as it comes with subdued, pessimistic, what-else-can-you-expect equanimity. That is, until he expresses his ardor and passion in song, lyrically poignant folk songs provided for Guy by Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova, the stars of the 2006 John Carney movie, also called “Once,” on which the musical is based.
Guy is a strong, sympathetic character. He is so real, you can imagine his life offstage and believe that you’re catching him as he goes about his general business as opposed to thinking he exists only when “Once” requires him to serve some dramatic or narrative purpose . Although “Once’s” other lead is called Girl, and although she may be given the single most touching moment in the musical, it is Guy in general, and Ward in particular, that keeps the show’s several story lines immediate and affecting. Girl is manic and practical while Guy is intense and romantic, whether he is in love or pining for it. Girl’s needs are based in reality while Guy can get lost in his dreams and aspirations. Girl provides enthusiasm and encouragement, but it’s Guy who earns our empathy and attention. Girl herself makes Guy the focus of most of her activity. Because of that, she seems more functional, more a character plotted to help Guy get along and to give him a present love interest than to be a full-blooded part of the action.
Girl serves as the catalyst that sets Guy’s life in motion, the one who gives him the desire and the gumption to pursue his ambitions. Dani de Waal is a ball of energy in the part, but even when Girl reveals an aching and obvious truth — in her native Czech so the audience understands it but Guy doesn’t — she can’t claim more than momentary emotional impact. Guy, with his music and the brooding quality that is a cross between Stephen Daedalus and Young Werther, dominates the landscape, so that “Once” becomes his story above all.
“Once” has three major threads that blend into a pattern. The story of Guy’s music going from being unappreciated, barely noticed in fact, to being destined for international acclaim is too neat. One minute, Guy is so crestfallen by the lack of attention or praise his tunes receive, he is ready to stop singing in public and resign himself to working in his father’s vacuum cleaner repair shop. The next, everyone in Dublin proclaims him a composing genius and foresees great fortune for him when he takes his music to New York. You have to ask why the same people who are heaping compliments and predicting commercial glory didn’t recognize Guy’s talent and encourage him all along. Guy’s sudden success among his neighbors and colleagues is buoying. You’re glad it’s happening and enjoy seeing the change. But even with minor setbacks and irritations book writer Enda Walsh builds into the script, there’s no real drama in Guy’s rise. It occurs too easily and with too little impediment. It’s the upbeat plot line that cheers and satisfies but provides no tension, nothing to move you besides happiness for Guy.
The “rise to stardom” thread has two wonderful byproducts. It gives the “Once” ensemble occasion to perform. As singers and musicians, they join Guy as he makes the demo CD that will introduce his songs to the world. The harmonies and virtuosity of the “Once” cast is extraordinary. Walsh could forgo plot and present a concert, and Hansard and Irglova’s music would entertain handily. The song passages lend “Once” its plaintive felicity, its soft elegance, and its liveliness. When the company sings a reprise of Ward’s first-act number, “Gold,” in a cappella, beauty and majesty emanates throughout the Academy of Music, the gorgeous tones and flawless singing matching the illustrious concert hall’s sumptuousness grandeur.
The second byproduct is also the second plot thread. Guy’s music brings Guy and Girl together and becomes the binding factor of their ill-timed romance.
Like Salieri in “Amadeus,” Girl is the only one in a large music-laden town, on this occasion Dublin, who hears a composer’s songs and knows they’re special, recognizes their superiority. It is she, a pianist herself, who approaches a despondent Guy, following yet another performance at which he’s been roundly ignored, and tells him how different and heartfelt his music is. It is she, with Czech seriousness she often mentions, and total determination, who refuses to let Guy quit playing music and begins a campaign to rally his resolve and bring attention to his talent.
Girl becomes a manager of sorts for Guy. She appears with flyers and posters to announce his appearance at a club. Her regard for the way he expresses his angst in song, and her promotional zeal, lead to a friendship which, as must happen in musicals, evolves into more.
You see the inevitable brewing. Guy is more appreciative and randy than attracted at first, but his gratitude turns to affection that gives a more tender direction to his hormones. Girl admires Guy’s talent while also taking an almost maternal interest in his moods and doubts. The more time they spend together, the more one inspires the other’s actions, subtlety and motherly feelings give way to more passionate regard and eventually to love.
Naturally, there are problems. Girl is aware that Guy’s songs of ardor and of lost love are not about her but about a girlfriend who left Dublin for New York months before she and Guy met. She also knows she has a personal reason why the two cannot be a couple.
While you know the attraction between Guy and Girl is the crux of the musical, it doesn’t excite intense interest until physical intimacy or marriage between them seems impossible. The obstacles in the way of deep, long-term consummation become too great. Walsh would have to become sentimental and abandon the story she’s established to create a romantic ending. Watching Guy and Girl wander into love is amusing and stirs no strong emotion. Seeing love emerge is sweet and rewarding. Understanding the couple cannot fully act on their love is painful and provides “Once” the bittersweet overtones that tug at the audience’s heart and give the show its depth. You always feel warm towards the characters, even Girl at her perkiest and least conscious of admiring any more than Guy’s talent, but the sense of genuine heartbreak, the audience’s as much as the characters’, doesn’t come until midway through the second act when Girl quietly intones her critical line in Czech, and we realize the pair will likely pursue their individual fates separately.
“Once” delays its strongest emotion. The build to it is quiet and more winsome than engrossing. The realization is sad and makes some subsequent songs, that a cappella performance of “Gold” included, more poignant.
“Gold’s” a cappella rendering could not have had its pervading beauty or its warming effect if its wasn’t for the cadre of excellent performers director John Tiffany assembled for this touring production.
The cast’s musical versatility, and skill at acting, sets up the third thread, a look at a Dublin community that combines Irish natives, steeped in the culture that is their heritage, and a group of Czech immigrants who have come to Dublin to earn better livings than they can in the Czech Republic.
While it concentrates on Guy and Girl, and on Guy’s music, “Once” also takes advantage of the music and dance that is so much a part of both its Irish and Czech contingents. Tiffany and Steven Hoggett, who is credited with movement, create some wonderfully entertaining sequences of people just whooping it up for the fun of it.
“Once” acquaints us with several individuals and their stories. Before Guy and Girl’s romance get cooking and looks to burn, it is the Dublin mise en scene and it denizens that engage us with their random tribulations and musical contributions. Even before the show begins, the majority of the cast is on stage, instruments in tow, conducting a spirited ceili brimming with robust dance and invigorating music. Hoggett’s movement takes a more stylistic tone once the musical begins, but you get a sense of the ensemble’s talent and vitality in the pre-show performance.
With bright red hair and legs kicking a mile a minute in reckless abandon, the lively Donna Garner grabs your attention during the pre-show. After “Once” begins, she earns your admiration again, both as a dancer and as Girl’s mother, Baruska, whose cynical but pragmatic attitude, is both amusing and telling.
Raymond Bokhour, in addition to starting the show with a lovely ballad, is touchingly honest as Guy’s father, a recent widower who wants his son’s company but realizes the lad must seek an adult life.
Evan Harrington, who seems to have mastered a wide array of instruments, adds humor and vivacity as Billy, the owner of a music shop. Benjamin Magnuson has a nice comic turn as a bank president who also writes songs and plays in bands. Alex Nee provides some dramatic moments as a Czech youth whose business career does not go as planned. John Steven Gardner and Matt DeAngelis are two more who must play every instrument known to man and do so with aplomb while also giving fine performances when playing their characters.
Steven Ward, as mentioned at the top, is a complete and completely moving Guy. He carries the soul of the play on his shoulders, and he is as steady as Atlas in that task. Ward gives Guy an earnest casualness that is upset, but ever so modestly, by frustrations and inability to make a mark or a move in life. The reality at the core of Ward’s performance informs every scene he’s in and provides “Once” with a galvanizing central figure, something the show could not survive without.
Lavish praise of Ward in no way diminishes the sterling job Dani de Waal does as Girl.
In contrast to Ward’s inner calm, de Waal is all unleashed force. She is someone who sees a task and does it. Girl’s energy and resolve is almost scary when we first see her confront Guy, then commandeer his life and turn it from dormant and broody to productive and purposeful.
De Waal embraces and conveys Girl’s enthusiasm for accomplishment. She is not still, quiet, or subtle. If something is on her mind, she says it. Plainly. De Waal’s performance has a lot of zest in it. The whirlwind we see in her first scenes doesn’t have time or inclination towards anything more than amicable relationships. Because of that, the difference in Girl when her emotions threaten to cause a personal dilemma, an upheaval in an order she feels beholden to maintain, is more telling. You know Girl is thoughtful. It takes you aback, though, when she become reflective. And remember that critical moment, the utterance in Czech, I keep mentioning. De Waal elicits all the heartbreaking reality her simple words should.
Music is as much as star of “Once” as its cast is. Hansard’s lyrics brim with poetry and perception rarely heard today in any genre. “Falling Slowly,” a duet Guy and Girl sing in the first act and reprise in the second, is particularly loving and evocative. The Czech passage, “Ej, Pada, Pada, Rosicka,” gives Irglova equal time, and she makes the most of it.
“Once” bounces on good will for much of the time. Musical numbers tend to subsume the plot until the complications that mar Guy and Girl’s chances of being a pair. You see why the show earned a Tony and is enjoying long runs in New York and London when the romance takes its turn towards doom.
That takes awhile. Luckily, “Once” provides enough entertainment to sustain interest until depth overshadows Dublin lightness. Thank John Tiffany and his inventiveness for that. The director sets a mood and tone that makes you want to watch to see what develops. He also treads a fine but clever line between stylization and naturalism that keeps “Once” afloat until its love story can take full effect.
Bob Crowley’s set, with its strategically placed large, fancily framed mirrors, can serve as many locations, from Guy’s apartment to a music studio, and establishes a tone that makes you think of Dublin. Crowley’s costumes are perfectly chosen for the characters who don them. Natasha Katz’s lighting maximizes the effect of several scenes, especially the one in which Girl confesses her regard for Guy, and the bath of golden tones that surround the cast as they sing “Gold.”
“Once” runs through Sunday, November 10, at the Academy of Music, Broad and Locust Streets, in Philadelphia. Showtimes are 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 2 p.m. Saturday, and 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sunday. Tickets range from $115.50 to $20 and can be ordered by calling 215-893-1999 or going online to www.kimmelcenter.org.