Theater review: ‘Once’ explores the healing power of music

By Kerry Clawson
Beacon Journal staff writer

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Once, the Tony Award-winning musical, based on the Oscar-winning independent Irish film starring Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova, celebrates love, music and community with a grace and grit that creators worked hard to keep true to the offbeat charm of the movie.

At the surface, Once may seem like a quiet little musical. But in this tale — set in Dublin — the characters’ passion for music, life and love speaks loudly.

This gem, playing at PlayhouseSquare’s Palace Theatre through Sunday, creates a sense of genuine intimacy and exhilarating music-making as the 12 adult cast members act, sing and play instruments including guitar, piano, mandolin, banjo, cello, violin, accordion and more.

It’s easy to see why the musical, based on the 2007 Oscar-winning Irish independent film, won eight Tony Awards in 2012. On tour, the top-notch actor/instrumentalists are beautifully attuned to each other, which is the essential backbone in this story about the healing power of music.

The romance and charm of Once centers on Guy and Girl, he an Irish busker and she a Czech immigrant who are drawn to each other through their shared love of music. He is deeply discouraged and ready to give up music completely but she steps in and helps transform his life in just five incredible days.

The story is set in an Irish pub, beautifully designed in a semi-oval pattern by Bob Crowley, dominated by a huge central mirror and featuring multiple smaller mirrors covering the remainder of the curved walls.

British actors Stuart Ward and Dani de Waal offer a chemistry that’s both sweet and electric as Guy and Girl. They create a sense of constant yearning and undeniable sexual tension, despite the fact that they barely touch one another.

De Waal’s Girl is a golden, smiling angel who harbors her own pain yet also has a quick wit and spunky forcefulness.

Handsome leading man Ward, who sings to guitar, has a voice that crackles with emotion, especially in the show’s Oscar-winning ballad, Falling Slowly, which also features Girl on piano.

The musical score and lyrics were written by Irish rock artist Glen Hansard and Czech musician Marketa Irglova, who starred in the original, bittersweet movie. Fans will be satisfied to see that the stage production fleshes out secondary characters and also creates a richer, more communal sense to Hansard and Irglova’s music as 12 musicians partake in the live music-making.

It seems to grow organically from the cast’s jam session onstage before the show begins, when all audience members are invited onstage to order a drink from the bar. As the pre-show jam session winds down and people take their seats, there’s almost no delineation between that partying and when the show proper begins, as the house lights gradually go down during Guy’s opening number Leave, about a painful breakup.

This folk musical is full of Irish and Czech flavor, both mournful and joyful. In the show’s most magical moment, as Guy sings the romantic Gold at a bar, ensemble members who had been sitting in chairs stand up one by one to add his or her own “singing” to the passionate piece through the voice of their individual instruments.

The result, combined with the musicians dancing en masse while playing, is absolutely breathtaking. Another strength of Once is the surprisingly creative, streamlined staging and seemingly simple movement by Steven Hoggett that helps keep this tale unspooling so beautifully.

Among the other cast members, Evan Harrington lends comic relief as the music store owner who doesn’t try to disguise his crush on Girl. Donna Garner also creates a forceful presence as Baruska, Girl’s mother, and Matt DeAngelis is a wild man in green sweatpants as Czech character Svec. The Irish and Czech musicians come together as a comically motley crew that nevertheless records music that takes your breath away in a studio session.

In this story of contradictions, the love that grows between Guy and Girl is at once strikingly simple yet terrifyingly complex. They’re able to give each other the precious gift of music and help each other believe in love again. Through them, we get the sense that the music will always go on.

Arts writer Kerry Clawson may be reached at 330-996-3527 or

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