Oct. 04--PROVIDENCE -- With the balmy temperature registering 76 degrees on the theater's lit marquee, patrons at Wednesday night's national-tour launch of "Once" lingered near a sidewalk bar set up outside the Providence Performing Arts Center. Many likely didn't realize they could also have ordered a drink by becoming part of the musical they were there to see.
The "Once" stage is set up as a Dublin pub, and audience members are invited to walk up, buy a beer or whatever, and linger pre-show and during intermission. Ten minutes before curtain, 10 actors arrive, pick up the instruments -- guitar, banjo, fiddle, tambourine, accordion, etc. -- set up around the bar perimeter and start jamming Celtic-flavored tunes. The audience is ushered out, the stirring music continues and then the pre-show morphs seamlessly into "Leave," the opening number of "Once," and the story begins.
It's the same tale as the 2006 movie that this jewel of a Tony Award-winning stage show is based on: Guy, an Irish would-be musician who fixes vacuum cleaners and has suffered through a year of his mother's death and girlfriend's departure, is about to give up on his songwriting. Then he meets Girl, an optimistic Czech immigrant who determinedly believes in following your dreams -- and in the value of his music.
It's a lovely, wistful story, with some unexpected turns and gentle humor, and Stuart Ward and Dani de Waal are charming leads and talented musicians. Ward's guitar-playing Guy is bruised, lonely and defensive, warming slowly to the guileless friendliness of de Waal's Girl. Although her Czech accent fades in and out, piano-playing de Waal is adorable and poignant as Girl, who is more chatty and funny than the role's cinematic counterpart.
The pair's performance of Oscar-winning "Falling Slowly" is the heart and soul of the show, but musical number after number (written by Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova, the movie's stars) is terrific as the ensemble members serve as both actors and musicians. Raymond Bokhour, for example, is touching as Guy's quiet, unremarkable Da, but also plays mandolin; Evan Harrington adds mostly fun, loudmouth comedy as music-shop owner Billy while also playing guitar, percussion and ukulele; and Claire Wellin is as uninhibited as siren friend Reza as she is in her fiddling.
While Enda Walsh's book occasionally goes too much for the cute factor or easy laugh in building on the less-is-more indie-film script, the minimalist staging has been part of the stage show's appeal since it was developed in a 2011 workshop at American Repertory Theater in Cambridge. (The musical opened off-Broadway later that year, then moved to Broadway in 2012 and won eight Tony Awards, including for Best Musical.)
Director John Tiffany keeps the actors around the edges of Bob Crowley's bar set while not in a scene, and at times, they play from there, as when instrument after instrument is added to the guitar and piano in "Falling Slowly." In other scenes -- Guy's bar performance of "Gold"; a rollicking recording-studio session of "When Your Mind's Made Up" -- the actors are front and center as musicians as well as characters.
With the one bar backdrop, Natasha Katz's lighting design is used to create a variety of locations. The actors turn chairs into couches and other main furniture needed, with set changes lyrically accomplished through movement choreographed by Steven Hoggett. Getting the drum set on and off stage is particularly fun to watch.
While "Once" is a show intimate enough to make you long to experience it in a smaller venue, the set's use of framed mirrors all around the walls does much to pull the audience into the love story's mixed emotions. A long mirror at the back is particularly effective in revealing facial expressions, small movements and even the instrument-playing you would otherwise miss. And while you still might wish to be closer to the action of this band of Irish musicians, at intermission, you can at least walk up to the bar to buy a drink.
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