As musicals go, Once is a rather delicate one. That may seem an odd description for a show set in and near a Dublin pub, a place where hookup possibilities, casual cursing and passionate musical performances are as abundant as the booze.
Yet “delicate” applies, as do words like “unusual” and “enchanting.” Winner of the 2012 best musical Tony Award, Once has landed at Miami’s Adrienne Arsht Center for a way-too-short run through Sunday.
Folks who go for spectacle-packed blockbusters when they seek out a touring Broadway show would likely find Once too simple for their tastes. But there are thousands — fans of deft theatrical storytelling, Irish music aficionados, people who dug the 2006 low-budget movie that inspired the stage show — who will be moved and entertained by Once.
The show creates a bond with its audiences before it gets started, inviting thirsty patrons into its onstage pub for a drink and a close-up listen to its talented actor-musicians. (And at the Arsht, theatergoers who use wheelchairs can join in that fun, thanks to a special lift alongside the stairs leading to the stage — a first for any of the Once tour stops.)
Once the crowd gets seated, with the house lights still blazing and the audience chattering away, you fret for a bit that the rowdy pub atmosphere might drain attentiveness from the show. But that isn’t the case. When Once gets going, theatergoers get into it, so much so that at several points it’s easy to hear the faint symbolic tick of a clock. The theater is that quiet, the crowd that attentive to a piece that playwright Enda CQ Walsh has filled with laughs, sentiment and the journey of two people who fill each other with hope.
Back to that delicate quality. Once tells the story of an Irish musician called Guy (Stuart Ward) and a young Czech songwriter-pianist called Girl (Dani de Waal), both veterans of problematic romances.
His longtime girlfriend has betrayed him, moving to New York, leaving him creatively stuck and more than a little angry. The young woman’s guy has gone back to Czechoslovakia, leaving her in Ireland to eke out a living for herself and her closest relatives. Over the course of a few days, romance and renewed purpose charge the air between the lost Guy and quirky Girl, though their connection is fragile and tenuous.
Tony-winning director John Tiffany allows this potential relationship the luxury — or some might say the impediment — of time as it unfolds. Silences and awkward pauses, natural in the early stages of getting to know someone, are allowed to play out. But if the pace were tightened ever so slightly, Once could shave minutes from its running time without harming its content and style.
If you know the Oscar-winning song Falling Slowly from the movie version of Once, you know that the show’s music (nearly all of it by the movie’s stars, Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová), is glorious. Falling Slowly begins as a quiet vocal and guitar-piano duet between Guy and Girl, building to a richly orchestrated, passion-filled chorus. Say It to Me Now is a commanding solo for Guy, The Hill an achingly haunting one for Girl. Gold, written by Fergus O’Farrell, is full of a lover’s gossamer imagery. And its second-act a capella reprise by the entire cast is a thing of shimmering beauty.
Led by the handsome Ward and lovely de Waal, whose voices on Falling Slowly make the audience fall for them quite quickly, the cast is full of quadruple threats. These are performers who act, sing, play instruments and move impressively. And “move” is a better word than “dance,” because what movement man Steven Hoggett has the actors do pointedly involves the physical expression of emotion, very different from razzle-dazzle dance the way Broadway usually does it.
But that’s Once — different, delicate and touching.