Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Theater Review: Once -- The Bushnell

Stuart Ward and Dani De Waal. Photo: Joan Marcus

Once is One of Those Shows You Don't Mind Seeing Twice
By Lauren Yarger
Once, winner of eight Tony Awards including Best Musical and winner of the 2013 Grammy Award for Best Musical Theater Album, brings its musical magic to The Bushnell.

Based on the low-budget motion picture by the same name which captured hearts -- and a 2007 Academy Award for music-and-lyric team Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglová (believe me, you have heard "Falling Slowly") Once invites the audience into one special week in Dublin, where a Guy (Stuart Ward) meets a Girl (Dani De Waal) and they make beautiful music together.

That invite to join is quite literal -- Bob Crowley's paneled Irish pub setting featuring warm lighting designed by Natasha Katz is open for business before the curtain and during intermission where audience members can enjoy the cash bar and jam sessions with the actors who all play their own instruments. Mirrors along the walls, including an oversized one above the bar, make it appear that we all are seated at the pub.

The story, written for the stage by Enda Walsh and based on the film written and directed by John Carney,  tells of the fact-based friendship between a Dublin songwriter and the woman who inspires him. John Tiffany directs with Steven Hoggett providing stage movement that allows the cast members, who never leave the stage, to react to the music being created.

When they meet, Guy is at the end of hope. His love has left him for America and his song-writing career isn't going anywhere. About to give up, he meets a blunt-talking, no-nonsense Czech Girl -- he calls her "the ambassador of honesty" who inspires him to take up his guitar again.

The two bond on a very deep level, despite the fact that Guy hopes to pursue his lost love in America and Girl, raising her little daughter Ivanka (Sarah Mckinley Austin) with the help of her family, is married to an absentee husband. Inspired by Guy's music, Girl writes some lyrics to unfinished pieces and convinces Guy he must perform it. Over five days, they collaborate and record a demo CD. Assisting them are Billy (Evan Harrington), who, smitten with Girl, allows her to play a piano in his music shop, a banker (Benjamin Magnuson), who is moved by Girl's persuasive plea and funds the recording session, and Guy's Da (Scott Waara), who helps his son get to New York.

The memorable, soul-touching, catchy tunes (Music Supervision and Orchestrations by Martin Lowe) thoroughly developed characters (even the minor ones with Harrington delighting with some comic relief) and a heartwarming story dotted with delightful humor all blend to make this a ballet of love and hope.

De Waal is excellent lending a lovely voice to the haunting, piercing and mellow songs while playing the piano. Ward shows skill on the guitar, but seems to try to be recreating the sounds of Steve Kazee who originated the role on Broadway (and won a Tony for it). So some moments seem to be a performance instead of a burstof emotion from the soul as intended.

Meanwhile, the sound (designed by Clive Goodwin) is off and much of the dialogue and lyrics -- particularly Ward's --are lost. Czech translations projected during Girl's conversations with her family probably would be better used to give English subtitles here.

It's well worth the experience, though, if just to hear the beautiful "Falling Slowly," which makes you want to sing along (and which, unfortunately, some folks seated nearby did). It's a musical definitely worth seeing more than once.

Once plays at The Bushnell, 166 Capitol Ave., Hartford, through May 31. Perforances are Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays: 7:30 pm; Fridays and Saturdays: 8 pm; Saturdays at 2 pm; Sundays 1 and 6:30 pm Tickets $21-$92: (860) 987-5900; www.bushnell.org.

The full cast:
Stuart Ward…. Guy
Dani De Waal…. Girl
Sarah Mckinley Austin…. Ivanka
Matt Deangelis…. Švec
John Steven Gardner….Eamon
Evan Harrington…. Billy
Ryan Link…. Emcee
Benjamin Magnuson…. Bank Manager
Alex Nee….Andrej
Erica Spyres…. Ex-Girlfriend
Tina Stafford…. Baruška
Erica Swindell…. Réza
Scott Waara…. Da

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Lauren Yarger with playwright Alfred Uhry at the Mark Twain House. Photo: Jacques Lamarre)

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