Theatre review: Genuine characters connect with audience in 'Once'

For the News-DemocratApril 10, 2014 

The beguiling "Once" fiddles around with traditional musical elements -- storytelling, musicality, movement and physical space. That freshness, along with an abundance of wit and charm, entranced the audience opening night at The Fox.

While its unconventional style is enough to make the 2012 Tony winner a special experience, I can't say enough about how well its genuine characters connect with the audience.

Engaging the audience with a universal theme of keeping hopes and dreams alive, this disarming bittersweet romance draws us in by emphasizing that someone's belief and love for you can be life-changing.

That's why the original source material, a 2006 low-budget Irish movie about a down-and-out Dublin busker whose brief encounter with a vibrant Czech immigrant moved him toward his destiny, found its legions of fans.

The simple enchanter quickly took off, earning the audience award at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival, critical raves, an Independent Spirit Award for best foreign film, and the 2008 Oscar for Best Song ("Falling Slowly") for its song-writing stars, real-life musicians Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova.

Turning writer-director John Carney's delicate inspirational film into a fully dimensional musical is a remarkable achievement. Because of director John Tiffany's inventive staging, the musicians and actors are seamlessly integrated into one, and that originality is captivating.

An outstanding ensemble creates the music on stage -- guitars, mandolins, violins, piano and a cello among them, playing most of Hansard and Irglova's original music.

Irish playwright Enda Walsh has seasoned the book with colorful colloquialism. And because of the endearing performances, underlines my belief that everything sounds better with an Irish accent.

Among the cast, the robust, opinionated Billy (Evan Harrington) and compassionate Da (Raymond Bokhour) stand out. Benjamin Magnuson as the bank manager, and Matt DeAngelis as Svec and Donna Garner as Baruska also have moments to shine.

But the show's linchpins are the stars, simply referred to as Guy (Stuart Ward) and Girl (Dani de Waal). A winsome pair, Ward and de Waal both displayed depth, poignancy and humor.

Their chemistry is obvious, and they beautifully delivered the signature "Falling Slowly" with plenty of feeling.

The extraordinary company's combined passion and energy is powerful, and reminds us that shiny new things don't have to be opulent spectacles.

The stunning "Gold" triumphantly ends Act One with sheer exhilaration, an uplifting current in song, musicianship and dance by Steven Hoggett.

A musical that wins eight Tony Awards, out of 11 nominations, comes with heightened expectations. My worries that such an intimate production would get swallowed up on the Fox stage were put to rest quickly.

A cozy, no-frills set functions as a pub, music shop, living quarters, recording studio and bank -- and a real working bar before the show and at intermission. Patrons can go up on stage -- no touching anything or taking photos -- and purchase wine, beer or water.

The stripped-down narrative, with its tender, quiet moments, is effective, but its occasional boisterous displays of community endear, too.

Unforgettable, mainly because it reminds us that people come into our lives for a reason, "Once" leaves one wanting more. But we walked out after enthusiastic ovations, rejuvenated by the examples that music can heal and the transformational power of love.

At a glance

What: "Once"

Where: The Fox Theatre

When: through April 20

Tickets: www.fabulousfox.com

Metrotix: 314-534-1111

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