'Once': Theater Review
A sludgy, tiresome musical opportunistically inflating an overhyped indie movie hit.
When I happened to catch an early screening of the John Carney 2006 film Once, it seemed a pleasant if inconsequential diversion. After Fox Searchlight picked it up from Sundance, it did a bang-up job of promoting the hell out of the movie to ensure that the broadest possible audience would feel the requisite sense of discovery. By the time the song “Falling Slowly,” composed by costars Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova, won them an Oscar, its ubiquity had transformed a serviceably plaintive pop number into an annoyingly incessant earworm divested of any of its sparkle, like a first-sight infatuation worn out by the exposing disillusion of reality.
In a transparently weak year for Broadway musicals that mostly repurposed older material, this more recent piece of recycling may have seemed relatively fresher, winning seven Tonys, including Best Musical. And its popular appeal is undeniable, as it closes in on 1,000 performances, still going strong. Nevertheless, for this viewer, the emperor appears stark naked, and not in any fun way.
The show peaks early as, with the house lights still up, the audience can mill about the set while the performers infectiously play authentically traditional Irish jigs and dance as if entertaining in a Dublin pub, an impression reinforced by the rampant inattention of a crowd more transfixed by their cell phones and conversations.
As the stage vacates and the lights dim, the sketchy plot commences: Disillusioned in life and vocation, frustrated musician Guy (Stuart Ward) announces himself ready to hang it all up in despair when he is peremptorily confronted by a forthright auditor in the pub, Girl (Dani de Waal), a Czech emigre who will not let him off the hook. She assumes the mission of rescuing his talent, and in the space of a hasty five days, reanimates him, motivating him to pull together a motley band and orchestrating a studio recording of a demo CD for the contentious group.
It all seems too easy, though the arbitrary obstacles facing the couple keep them apart romantically, even as their feelings and attraction blossom. She and her young daughter have been abandoned by her husband, and he jilted by his girlfriend, who has moved to New York City. Conveniently, these insurmountable barriers remain offstage (except for a brief phone call near the end), so we can see no impediment to their obvious suitability for one another.
This slight wisp of plot boils down to the cliched development of Mickey and Judy putting on a show, all the while unable to acknowledge they’re crazy about each other. It might be easier to take if everyone encountered weren’t so immediately impressed with the genius of the songs, which may be all right but are certainly not worthy of such unfettered enthusiasm. Nor does the central relationship ever attain genuine credibility for all its relentless redundancy.
Again, there might be residues of charm if the material weren’t so viscously stretched out. One couldn’t help but notice at the intermission that the production was already running longer than the entire movie did; it ultimately clocks out at more than two and a half hours, including the intermission. This, despite only three unreprised songs during all of Act II, and somehow without the original title song even making the cut. Nor do the show’s modest pleasures fit the opulent scale of the 2,700-seat Pantages, which only magnifies the sluggish pace of the minimally developed narrative. (On Broadway it plays to 1,100, which still seems far too large by half.)
Book writer Enda Walsh, a justly acclaimed playwright (The Walworth Farce, The Next Electric Ballroom), intermittently supplies some cantankerous dialogue, but his romantic interplay feels unconvincingly declamatory. This may have been a rewarding job of work for him (along with his Tony), but to experience the true scope of his iconoclastic talent, catch his play Penelope at Rogue Machine, where it runs till August 13, past this engagement’s closing.
Cast: Stuart Ward, Dani de Waal, John Steven Gardner, Evan Harrington, Benjamin Magnuson, Donna Garner, Matt DeAngelis, Alex Nee, Matt Wolpe, Raymond Bokhour, Erica Swindell, Claire Wellin, Kolette Tetlow
Playwright: Enda Walsh
Director: John Tiffany
Music and lyrics: Glen Hansard & Marketa Irglova
Book: Enda Walsh, based on the motion picture written and directed by John Carney
Movement: Steven Hoggett
Scenic and costume designer: Bob Crowley
Lighting designer: Natasha Katz
Sound designer: Clive Goodwin
Music supervisor: Martin Lowe