In short: Once is one of the most powerful, memorable, honest, and moving pieces of theatre that I've seen in a LONG time.
In long: Anyone who knows me can tell you that I'm a huge fan of Glen Hansard. I've seen him eight times in concert, own all of his Swell Season and Frames albums, and consider him my favorite songwriter and one of my biggest inspirations. When I saw Once, I was 17 years old and was completely blown away by it. It was one of the most touching films that I'd ever seen. It wasn't a bloated Hollywood product, but instead a real piece of art delicately crafted with love by people who truly cared for it. It was a work of passion, and it was praised highly because of that. For me, it quickly became one of my favorite films. I showed it to every single one of my friends, and became hooked on Glen's music with Once being my gateway drug. Naturally, when I heard that they were going to make a stage version of Once, I was extremely excited. I'm an acting/directing dual major, so it really was like combining two of my favorite things and just like peanut butter and jelly they go together incredibly well.
I'll admit, I was skeptical. Once was such an intimate film. How could they manage to recreate that on a stage playing to a whole audience? Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova dominated their roles so well that it was virtually impossible to imagine anyone other than them playing the Guy and Girl.
I entered the theatre skeptical yes, but with ridiculously high hopes. I wanted the show to be good. I wanted to be moved. I wanted to leave the theatre raving about what an incredible piece of art I'd seen. Luckily, all of my wishes came true and I consider seeing Once one of my favorite theatrical experiences to date. The sheer talent, passion, creativity, and hardwork put into the show is staggering, and it all payed off.
When you enter, you notice that the stage is set up like the inside of an Irish pub. There are mirrors all over the walls, along with candles. Lining the walls on the ground are chairs with various instruments strewn around them. In the middle of the stage is a piano that becomes the "Falling Slowly" piano later on. To the back of the stage is the bar, which actually functions as a real working bar. Before the show and during intermission, audience members can walk up onto the stage and purchase alcohol to either drink on the stage (but not sitting in the chairs) or back in their seats. Additionally, before the show almost the entire cast is on stage having a good ole fashioned Irish trad session. They play loads of Irish folk songs and genuinely look like they're having a blast. The audience does not exist to them, even while on stage, they are in their own world but are putting on one hell of a preshow. I got meself a Guinness and sat back down. Luckily, I walked up to the box office about forty minutes before showtime and was able to get a front row center seat. The theatre overall is not very big, but my seat was absolutely perfect.
The transition between preshow and show is wonderful. Cast members take turns playing songs onstage and alternating who is singing lead and who is taking their own songs, etc. Finally, the Guy walks out onto the stage and they look to him to play one of his songs. He does, and that's what begins the show. Differing from the movie, he plays Leave here instead of Say It To Me Now. Speaking of transitions, the director is brilliant. Every single transition worked fluently and flawlessly. They seemed natural, at times hilarious, and at times heartbreaking. A good director incorporates the transitions into the piece as a tool, and this director (John Tiffany) makes great use of them.
In addition to the transitions, the movement was beautiful. There was one moment in the piece where I got choked up simply by a movement that one of the cast members did. There isn't dancing in the show, but rather movement and it works. It really REALLY works.
The book by Edna Walsh was lovely. The storyline is essentially the same as in the movie, but there is a lot of added dialogue (some of it really really funny), more fleshing out of minor characters (the loan agent, the music store owner, Girl's roommates), and there were some lines that really helped establish the relationship between the two main characters. One thing that I noticed was that Girl's personality seems to have changed a bit, but I think for the better. She's more fiery, more headstrong, while Guy is kind of in the passenger's seat a lot of the time. Girl is the go-getter, and she's the one who pushes Guy into not getting rid of his guitar and recording his demo. It's a very strong book overall, and for a workshop we can only expect it to even get better which is a really exciting prospect considering already it's strength.
The score, as expected, was incredible. It's the same songs as in the movie, except for all new orchestrations. The cast plays their own instruments, and everyone is pretty much on stage the entire time. If they are not onstage, they are in one of the chairs that line the walls of the pub playing the instruments. This was an extremely nice touch. The orchestrations were so fresh that while I've seen the movie a hundred times, each song felt new to me. The harmonies were as smooth as honey, and the voices were gorgeous. I heard so many people around me who had never even seen the movie talk about how great the music was. The songs in the order that I remember them being in were:
If You Want Me
The Moon (This was mostly transition music and played through a lot of them)
Trying To Pull Myself Away (Same as above)
Say It To Me Now
Loan Agent's Song (Brand new song, very very funny)
Broken Hearted Hoover Fixer Sucker Guy
When Your Mind's Made Up
The Moon (Reprise)
Falling Slowly (Reprise)
There are also bits of the song Once played on the piano throughout the show. Part of me thinks that I put Sleeping in the wrong place, but I can't remember exactly where it came in. However, the scene with that song was probably my favorite of all the scenes. It happens right after Guy and Girl are looking out at the ocean and she tells him something in Czech which I will not reveal incase anyone hasn't seen the movie. The scene was incredibly moving.
Now we come to the cast. As Girl, Cristin Milioti was a privilege to watch. She's got huge stage presence, a fantastic accent, a killer voice, and is extremely likable. I think she improves on Irglova's performance from the film. The role seems custom made for her, and she definitely owns it. As for Guy, Steve Kazee does a really really terrific job. Filling Glen Hansard's shoes is no easy task. The man has one of the rawest, most powerhouse voices to ever be heard. What I like is that Kazee doesn't try to emulate Hansard, but rather makes the role his own. The songs are sung prettier, but they lose the gruffness that comes with Hansard's voice when Kazee goes into the shout sing portions of the songs. However, he's really great in the role and has a very natural charisma. Like Milioti, the audience immediately likes him and truly feels for him in the end. He does a fantastic job, and they both have truly made the roles differ from their original incarnations, while still retaining some familiarity and the likability of the characters in the film.
As for the new minor characters, the loan agent, the music store owner, and Girl's roommates are all part of the band. Andy Taylor as the loan agent was hilarious and his addition as a larger character was a very wise choice. One stand out in particular was Paul Whitty as the music shop owner. He was by far the funniest character in the show. Hell, everyone in the cast is fantastic. I can't recall a more talented group of people up on a stage. They look like they're having a ball, and the sheer energy they put into the performance is overwhelming.
As soon as the performance was over, the audience began leaping to its feat and led to a huge standing ovation. The crowd was loved the show. There wasn't a dry eye in the house by the end. It's interesting because many of the people who were around me had no idea what the show was about before hand. They hadn't seen the movie, but came because they'd heard good things or were season ticket holders. Either way, I heard nothing but praise after the show was over. Everyone was buzzing about it. I've never heard so much positive immediate feedback right after a show was over before. That's saying something. I'm so glad that the show was so well received.
Again, I probably sound like a broken record, but if you get the chance to see Once, do it. Do NOT miss out on this incredible production. I've no doubt that it'll go far. I'm a man of little sorrow, but there were a few moments in this show that I genuinely almost burst out into tears. It's so intimate and you care so deeply for the characters that it almost feels like you've established a really close friendship within the two and a half hours that you're in the theatre. See this show. I repeat. See it. You'll be sorry if you don't. It's worth every penny. I can't remember when the last time I've been so profoundly impacted by a show has been. After having been feeling burned out on theatre for a while, this show restored my enthusiasm. I'll be back to see it again. And then again after that.
Also, a side note. I spoke to Glen Hansard after the show and he seemed incredibly enthusiastic. He's offered nothing but praise for the show and told me how proud he was of it and how amazing he thought the cast was. He went on about how brilliant it was, even after being skeptical himself. Glad to know it has his stamp of approval.
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