Theater Review: Once

Once_new york theatre workshop

When I first saw the movie Once, I was struck by how lovely itwas given how little happens. Two musicians with little means but abundant talent meet and create a demo album. He (Guy) is an Irish guitarist and songwriter who’s down on luck, love, and any future prospects. She (Girl) is a Czech pianist who is a stark realist with a passion for music. When she hears one of Guy’s songs on the streets of Dublin one night, she feels with absolute conviction that his music needs to be heard by a wider audience. A quiet romance builds as they begin to create music together, and for a couple that barely touches throughout the whole movie, there’s an unbelievable amount of sexual energy. What I love most is that the subtlety of their love story is weighed against the fierce emotion of the songs. When Glen Hansard’s voice hits the upper register on the song, “Say it to Me Now,” it is nothing short of an emotional experience. The stage adaptation at New York Theatre Workshop was beautiful as well, and it allowed the musical to breathe as its own theatrical entity. This production treats music very differently in that way; all of the actors play instruments and sit on stage the entire show, picking up their violins or guitars during various songs to create a swell of music. The success of the adaptation owes much to director John Tiffany and choreographer Steven Hoggett. Their talent is in understanding how an audience interacts with a performance. Creating a functioning bar onstage where cast mates sing and play instruments as though part of a spontaneous hootenanny, and where, cleverly, audience members can buy a pint of Guinness before the show and during intermission brings one into the world of a Dublin pub. The way the characters’ movement contributes to the narrative is equally evocative. During one scene in which Girl writes lyrics to Guy’s music, she places headphones over her ears and responds to the melody as though she feels the music in her entire body.

The only place where the production falters is the book. Enda Walsh goes for the easy laugh a few too many times and makes some scenes feel clumsily strewn together like unrehearsed sketch comedy. But he does expand the roles of each character far more than the movie allows, which adds dimension and depth to the show.

It’s rare to see a love story like this one where individuals who have so much chemistry are so reluctant to say expressly how they feel. Rather it’s conveyed through their musical collaboration and the inspiration they draw from each other. I hope to see Once flourish on Broadway. A quiet story may seem dwarfed by a grander stage, but the music will fill the space perfectly.