Review: Once (Mirvish)
By Wayne Leung
Mirvish presents the Tony Award-winning musical Once in Toronto
When you hear the term “Broadway musical” you might picture singers with big, brassy voices belting their emotions to the rafters while massive hydraulic sets rise from trap doors, chandeliers crash and life-sized animal puppets parade down the aisles. Broadway shows can get to be a bit much even for those of us who are fans of the admittedly chintzy and frequently over-the-top genre.
Once, adapted from the 2006 film of the same title, is none of the above. Despite the fact the show won the 2012 Tony Award for Best Musical it is the antithesis of the typical Broadway musical; it’s an intimate story told in a beautifully understated way that feels so genuinely personal and that’s precisely what makes the show so impactful. Once is a Broadway show for people who don’t like Broadway shows.
It also isn’t, strictly speaking, a musical; while it is a story told with music, characters don’t sing dialogue to each other and songs are performed in-context (i.e. the characters sing because they’re musicians). Set primarily in a bar in Dublin, Once is a story of unrequited love and two lost souls, characters referred to only as Guy and Girl (Stuart Ward and Dani de Waal), who find each other through their music.
That music, by songwriters Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová who originated the lead roles in the film, falls squarely in the realm of folk which is timely given the recent revival of folk in popular music. If you’re a fan of bands like Mumford and Sons and The Lumineers chances are you’ll love the score to Once.
Much like the original film, the plot is languid but the songs are beautiful and the live performance element really adds something special to the experience. I really loved the fact that the actors double as the band; cast members play their own instruments on stage throughout the show.
I fell in love with Once when I first saw it in New York last year. It was totally refreshing to see a Broadway show that was understated and felt so authentic. It’s really unlike anything else on Broadway. I was curious to see if the touring cast would be able to pull off that same magic.
Once is a threadbare story of intimate moments, stolen glances and unspoken words. The underlying emotions are powerful but the delivery has to be oh-so subtle. Ward and de Waal bear an enormous burden; the success of the entire show rests on these two performers and their ability to channel those deep emotions that lurk just below the surface, build a convincing relationship with each other and a rapport with the audience.
I didn’t immediately fall in love with the pair at first. While Ward quickly won me over I wasn’t sure de Waal was effectively conveying her character’s vulnerability and thought she was playing her a little too stiff for laughs. I also wasn’t entirely convinced of Ward and de Waal’s chemistry by intermission but it was all a slow buildup to the powerful release in the second act. Their later scenes together were scintillating and I admit I was a bleary-eyed mess by the end.
The leads are backed by an incredibly talented and consistently strong ensemble. John Tiffany’s direction and Steven Hoggett’s movement design work brilliantly together; scenes flow beautifully into one another and I love how fresh and original the choreography feels. In the end, I thought this production was able to re-create the magic of the original.
Oh, and a tip: the cast/band performs a pre-show jam session and audience members are welcome to come up on stage to visit the bar and order drinks so plan to arrive at least a half hour before curtain to spend a little more time in the bar with the cast. I guarantee that by the end of the show you won’t want to leave.
- Once is playing at the Royal Alexandra Theatre (260 King Street West) through January 5, 2014
- Shows run Tuesday to Saturday at 8:00 p.m. and Wednesday, Saturday & Sunday at 2:00 p.m.
- **No performances on December 24, 25 and January 1
- **Additional performances throughout the holidays, check Mirvish.com for details
- Tickets $35.00 to $130.00
- Tickets are available by phone at 416-872-1212 or 1-800-461-3333, in-person at the Royal Alexandra Theatre box office or online at Mirvish.com
Photo of Stuart Ward and Dani de Waal by Joan Marcus