In an age when no cinematic product seems safe from being targeted for a theatrical make-over, and when so few of these movies-turned-musicals end up having much substance to offer, "Once" impresses all the more.
This modest-scaled work, now getting its Baltimore debut at the Hippodrome, manages to preserve the essence of the hit indie film from 2007 written and directed by John Carney, while creating some unusual and genuine magic of its own.
The screen version of "Once" introduced two engaging characters identified, in Everyman fashion, as Guy, a frustrated street musician in Dublin; and Girl, a Czech immigrant who happens upon him and finds herself riveted by his songs. (Singer/songwriter Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova played the couple in the movie and collaborated on the songs.)
The plot finds the man and woman drawn together quickly in an effort to promote Guy's music, but it seems inevitable that they will also enter into an all-out affair. How and why they don't is what helped make the movie so captivating. It's the stuff of fresh, involving theater, too.
Winner of eight Tony Awards in 2012, including best musical, "Once" has a deftly crafted book by Irish playwright Enda Walsh (he took home a Tony, too). He retains the intimate plot and the dry humor, but also opens up the story just enough with more characters and situations. The effect isn't cluttered. It's Walsh's way of introducing the element of community.
Director John Tiffany (another Tony-winner) gave that element an extra push, adding a risky outer layer to the production, which unfolds on a single, highly evocative set designed by Bob Crowley that puts everyone into the lively milieu of an Irish pub.
In the 15 or 20 minutes before "Once" starts, audience members can go up on stage and order drinks from the bar, while cast members break into song and dance around them (everyone in the cast plays an instrument and sings -- very well, too).
When theater patrons head back to their seats, the mini-concert seamlessly flows into the first scene of the musical. Once established, this sense of a shared experience remains throughout. It's no longer a story about just two people. It's about us.
Near the end of "Once," Billy, a music shop owner with a romantic soul, notes that love is a complicated business. In most contexts, such an observation would come across as terribly cliched. Not here. Like the whole show, the line somehow sounds wise and real.
Revealing the complicated business at the heart of "Once" are Stuart Ward as nervous, awkward Guy; Dani de Waal as confident, but guarded, Girl.
The actors share an ability to animate their characters with natural, beautifully detailed nuances. This is nowhere more evident than in the show's warmest scene, the only one staged outside the main boundaries of the set, when the would-be lovers come the closest to opening their hearts.
Ward relies too much on such gestures as thrusting hands deep into his jeans pockets and putting a slouch into his shoulders. Another note or two would enrich the portrayal.
Clearer diction would be welcome, too. Even a longtime Hibernophile might have trouble deciphering the British actor's Irish accent at times. (Several people in the cast could pay more attention to articulation.) And when he sings, Ward swallows a few too many words. But his phrasing, like his acting, is invariably potent.
De Waal is droll and winning in her initial scenes. She then gradually lets you sense just how much this young woman is sorely tempted by the unexpected glimpse of a future with the disarming Guy, but remains honor-bound by her past.
All of the internal conflict emerges poignantly in de Waal's account of the fine ballad "The Hill." Her piano playing is as sensitive as her singing in that lovely scene. She also reveals a thoughtful touch during a brief, well-chosen bit of classical music, one of Mendelssohn's melancholy "Songs Without Words."
The show's first number, the dreadful scream-fest "Leave," is followed by lots of effective material. "Falling Slowly," which earned an Academy Award for the film, still holds up well. And it's nice to find a pop song venturing into 5/4 rhythm ("When Your Mind's Made Up"), or getting new expressive mileage out of conventional descending harmonic lines.
Martin Lowe's arrangements, too, are terrific, with colorful, atmospheric use of mandolin, accordion, violin, cello and more.
The gem of the score, though, involves only voices, when the ensemble offers an exquisitely understated, a cappella version of "Gold" that casts quite a spell. Rarely do musicals these days give you such an unhurried, poetic way to drink in a song.
The cast also nimbly carries out some choreographed moves (devised by Steven Hoggett) at various points throughout the show. The stylized dancing could have ended up looking forced or pretentious, but it adds another distinctive layer to an uncommon musical.
Everyone in the ensemble pitches in at an equally hearty level. Standouts include the vibrant and amusing Evan Harrington as Billy; and Alex Nee, who, with relatively few lines, creates an endearing character out of the hopeful immigrant Andrej, and reveals a sweet voice when he gets the chance.
Raymond Bokhour does a subtle job as Guy's father, but he is even more impressive when he gets a solo during the pre-show. Hearing him sing "On Raglan Road," with its haunting, doomed-love poem by Patrick Kavanagh set to the tune of the old, equally haunting Irish ballad "The Dawning of the Day," makes an exceptionally apt prelude for the bittersweet beauty of "Once."