"How's the heart?" says the Da of the Guy in "Once," the exquisitely crafted, gorgeously resonant and wholly not-to-be-missed Broadway musical that has arrived in Chicago for just three weeks, its newly formed (as in, this is their second week out) first national touring company still flush with the thrill, and a little of the desirable terror, of new discovery.
If you're lucky — and one of the latent themes of "Once," is that such selfless favors are not dispensed equitably in this cruel world — your parents, maybe even your lover or partner, inquire regularly about your emotional well-being. But I doubt they've done so quite so concisely, quite so eloquently, quite so startlingly directly as this supporting character in the screen-to-stage story of an Irish-born street musician who has become stopped up with grief and angst, and the energetic Czech angel who saves him from himself and selflessly changes his entire life, mostly by no longer permitting him to wallow in the past. "How come I did not get one of those angels at that crucial moment?" you might well think as you watch "Once." Perhaps you just didn't notice when one showed up.
But back to "How's the Heart." In a scene that's killed me every time I've seen it (and I've seen "Once" three times), a Dublin dad frees his son to pursue his dream in New York. Das and Mas do this all the time, of course, and not just in Dublin, the city to which "Once" offers up a love letter.
But Enda Walsh, the Irish writer who somehow managed to intuit what so many adapters miss, who figured out how to strip away all of the stuff that stops movies from becoming great musicals, who took his audience to that sweet spot between the familiar and the strange. Most men don't, can't, say "how's the heart?" to their sons; we're not so eloquent or concise. We fumble in such moments. But most fathers, knowing that love means loss as well as life, worry about the health of their children's hearts. And this is why we go to the theater: to watch the expression of that which we cannot fully express ourselves.
It is a rare feat, achieved here by Walsh, with the help of director John Tiffany and the movement man Steven Hoggett, to express such unabashed romantic feeling, such yearning emotion, without stooping to sentiment or wallowing in cliche.
"Once" is based on the 2007 indie movie (supported early on in its stateside release by Michael Phillips in this newspaper) from director John Carney and starring Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova. The best-known song in the show, "Falling Slowly," won an Oscar.
Although the plot of the film is the plot of the show, mostly, the theatrical version takes what was a story of two distinct individuals and makes them metaphoric stand-ins for a much broader range of human experience.
In my favorite scene (this review is about my seventh attempt to get you, yes you, to take a night and check it out), the Guy and Girl stand atop the set in a scene I've always assumed to be set in Dun Laoghaire, one of my favorite spots in Ireland.
The lovers — even though they can't actually be lovers, perched as they are perpetually on the edge of Eros, their souls ripped between each other and, well, responsibilities to unfinished business — stand outside their own problems for a moment and stare at the smallness of the city, its lights twinkling in the distance. They're like a pair of Greek tragedians on top of some ancient Skene.
But it's also a scene that those lucky in love will have experienced and will recognize as it plays out in the theater: a cherished, stolen moment, with a shared soul, when you feel like you stand apart, while still taking comfort from, the community in which you make your home. Most of us get only a few of those trips to Dun Laoghaire, or wherever, in our lives. And you never know when it will be the last one.
This new company of "Once" (yes, Equity, and very much directed by the original director) brings a different energy to these characters, of course. I found it surprisingly hard to deal with The Girl being blonde, although I also scribbled down, "What it is about hair color?" as a chastisement. Dani De Waal, who plays The Girl, does not yet plumb every depth; being young, she perhaps has yet to see how far this character will allow her to go. But it is a lovely performance nonetheless from this beautiful British singer. And one knew one was in capable hands with Stuart Ward as The Guy when, on Wednesday night, he started out by snapping a guitar string. He drove away at that steel, like a man strumming the pain with his fingers, as the lyricist Norman Gimbel once wrote. The character actors — Raymond Bokhour as Da, John Steven Gardner as Eamon, Donna Garner as Buruska, Evan Harrington as Billy — all feel just right.
Many musicals follow a set progression. You catch them in some intimate venue — in this case, I first saw "Once" at the New York Theater Workshop. Then you see them on Broadway and things get bigger and broader. Finally, you catch a tour in a huge venue like the Oriental Theatre, and it's like watching a carbon copy, forever more and more removed from the original creative impulse. "Once," truly, has been the exception. Big venues do not hurt this show; in fact, the increased size of the audience only helps with the magnitude of what you're watching.
Sitting there Wednesday night with moist eyes (this show somehow speaks to me; what can I say?), I kept trying to figure Tiffany's intimate secret.
It's partly his movement collaborator: Hoggett's choreography for "Once" is based on the central principle that dance in theater works best when the character's body starts to move before the character makes the conscious choice to go along for the ride. Thus everything physical about "Once" feels organic; the size of the stage becomes irrelevant. But it's mostly that true intimacy is achieved through truth — nothing spatial at all, really, just honesty.
You can see "Once" at the Oriental Theatre, and nothing will be lost. Choose your date wisely. If you feel like me about this piece, and your date doesn't get it, you'll have to end it then and there. And then go looking for an angel of your own.