MUSICAL THEATRE REVIEW: ONCE
Dani de Waal
Special to TorSun
04 DEC 2013
Many stories begin with ONCE, as in "Once upon a time…" But while, in adapting the story and music from the 2006 movie of the same name to the musical stage, playwright Enda Walsh and composer/lyricists Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová have created something some might consider a modern-day romantic fairytale, they adroitly — and wisely — sidestep conventional notions of an "and they all lived happily ever after" ending, in favour of a more pragmatic but satisfying "and they all managed to make the most of the present and get on with their lives."
Having cleaned up at the 2012 Tony Awards, ONCE has spawned the obligatory touring company to bring the tale to the provinces, and it pulled into the Royal Alex last week for a Toronto run over the holiday season, adding another love interest to the Mirvishes ongoing and now public affair with the genre. It's a simple love story, simply told — more of a romantic sketch than a portrait, really — spun out in a faux-Irish working pub in modern-day Ireland, where immigrant and native alike struggle with economic sobriety after a long and ill-fated, Euro-inspired binge.
It is in that environment that a Guy (played by Stuart Ward) and a Girl (Dani de Waal) meet. He's an Irish-born vacuum repairman and, after wearing a groove in his guitar writing love songs to a woman who left him for New York, he's ready to throw in the towel, musically speaking. She's a Czech immigrant with a daughter, a mother and no visible means of support, living a life in which everything seems to suck — except her vacuum cleaner.
And while it's immediately obvious to everyone that the Gods of both Hoover and Kismet intended them to be together, they aren't too quick on the uptake. Instead of falling into each other's arms, they fall into music, conspiring to build a romance of sorts through a score comprised mostly of Celtic rock-love songs. Meanwhile, Dublin life plays out around them, reflecting both the joys and the sorrows of Irelands's post-prosperity letdown, all sketched with the same minimalist brush strokes Walsh uses to create his main characters.
While it's an unusual writing technique, it serves to draw a willing audience into the story, demanding that one intuit the humanity to flesh out the skeletons with which director John Tiffany and movement designer Steven Hoggett populate their stage. They offer only brief and telling glimpses — but little more — into the lives of their principals and a lovely roster of supporting players, all of whom, like Ward and de Waal, do double duty as the orchestra.
And in the end, it all comes together as a strange and sometimes hypnotic hybrid of theatre, ceili, and illuminated story telling that is undeniably charming, despite a certain sense of corn-fed American complacency in de Waal's performance (evident, to a lesser degree in Ward's) that leaves one feeling that, somewhere just out of sight, ONCE's main street Dublin just might intersect with Disneyland's Main Street USA.