A modest, beguiling indie film, about two lonely young musicians in Dublin sharing a special, bittersweet and brief connection, becomes a surprise international hit. An original song from the best-selling soundtrack (the shivery “Falling Slowly”) wins an Oscar.
Does it follow, then, that the next step will be a Broadway musical? Hardly.
Yet magic happened when “Once” made that transition and quietly enchanted Broadway in 2012.
In the musical “Once” (which earned eight Tony Awards, including best musical, and is now on tour at the Paramount Theatre), Irish playwright Enda Walsh and canny director John Tiffany (“Black Watch”) have reignited the movie’s brooding score (by film co-stars Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová), and the romance’s scruffy ambience and tender essence.
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But this is also a piece of fresh, and very live, theater, doing what a movie can’t.
As patrons enter the hall to the fiddle-raging traditional Irish tunes and lusty dancing of an ensemble of vivacious musician-actors, an approachable, intimate tone is set. You can even join the cast for a bit on Bob Crowley’s perfect set of a battered Irish pub, and sip a beer.
That’s the intro for a gentle story that injects raffishly ironic humor into a time-honored ships-that-pass-in-the-night plot, along with searching, soaring alt-folk-pop songs — and striking postmodern dance and narrative gambits that are, more and more, enriching the Broadway musical vocabulary. Tiffany orchestrates all this keenly, whisking us between zestful brio and subtle encounter.
The onstage ensemble (including Seattle native Ryan Link) performs the score (on a lovely jangle of acoustic guitars, mandolin, piano, cello and accordion), and zestfully portrays smaller roles. They also act as a gestural, semiabstract dance chorus, whose tableaus and expressive unison movements (choreographed by Steven Hoggett) help flesh out the tale, and people it with a community of endearing eccentrics like Billy (excellent Evan Harrington), a lonely bear of a man running a failing music store.
In case you missed the movie: The disaffected Guy (played here by Stuart Ward) is a struggling singer-songwriter, who while busking on a Dublin street is approached by Girl (Dani de Waal), a Czech single mother and amateur pianist, estranged from her husband.
Adorable but also bluntly perceptive, Girl senses that Guy is in a major funk. He’s pining for a lost love, fixing vacuum cleaners for a living, and ready to give up on what he’s best at: making music.
It’s a meet-cute situation, but it’s not the flattering sexual come-on Guy imagines, or a standard Hollywood love connection. Girl is stoked by Guy’s brooding songs and impassioned voice. And her mission is to help him shake off his blues, record his music — and “not give up on love,” even if it means chasing after the object of his affections, now living in New York.
Her generosity toward this sulky stranger seems awfully generous. But Girl, which de Waal plays with glowing restraint and quirky wisdom, is no stock gamin guide to bliss. A visit to the flat she shares with her child, her mother (Donna Garner) and other boisterous relatives is a peek into a reality of domestic chaos and immigrant poverty.
Girl means it when she states, “I’m always serious, I’m Czech.” Within a few days, as the mutual attraction with Guy builds, so does her awareness of greater needs, bigger responsibilities.
In this cast, radiant Girl rather overshadows jammed-up Guy, whom the attractive Ward plays with a fidgety sensitivity and tendency to mumble dialogue. But like de Waal (who performs on piano), Ward is a fine musician. And his powerful renditions of such jaggedly affecting, whisper-to-wail ballads as “If You Want Me,” “Gold” and the lovely “Falling Slowly,” make us believe he’d catch a stranger’s ear — and understand why she’d want to rescue him from himself.
Misha Berson: firstname.lastname@example.org