Slowly Falling for Once at the Boston Opera House

James Kennedy ’14 / Emertainment Monthly Staff Writer

The national tour cast of Once.
The national tour cast of Once.

Once, the musical, has arrived in Boston, and it’s just as charming as ever.

The story is simple: “Guy” is an Irish songwriter badly burned by the departure of the love of his life for America. The Czech immigrant “Girl” discovers him after a performance at an open mic night and gives herself the task of helping him find the spark to start writing songs again. Over the course of a week, she helps him put a demo together, but then those pesky romantic feelings start to change the nature of their relationship.

Because nothing is ever simple, it would be impossible for them to just be in love—Guy must go to America to chase after his ex-girlfriend, and Girl still has to sort out her complicated relationship with her daughter’s father. Though they’ve only just become acquainted, they already have quite a bit to sort out between them.

On the grand level, it is quite the contradictory show. Like its older stepbrother musical (of sorts) Spring Awakening, Once has achieved that rare success of being a hit with both musical lovers as well as the indie crowd that wouldn’t dare be caught at a production of Mame. The show is small in size—no flashy scenery or dance numbers here—yet grand in theme. Scenes and dialogue are based in realism, but there are moments of true theatrical magic.

Once is a successful balancing act, tiptoeing between opposites but never tilting too far to one side or the other. Fortunately, the piece manages to maintain its balance for its entirety; moments of fantasy are immediately counteracted by moments of grounded emotional conflict. The writing is consistent in tone and pace so that it does all of the work for us—we simply need to settle in and allow the musical to take us on the ride.

The national tour cast of Once.
The national tour cast of Once.

Then, there’s the production itself. From the cozy preshow, when the musicians jam together and audience members can grab drinks at the on-stage functioning bar, the show welcomes viewers in like an old friend. There’s an “everything will be alright” aura that undercurrents the entire evening that avoids being overbearing and is instead quite fun.

The performances were all sharp, especially by the ensemble of actor-musicians. Stuart Ward as Guy and Dani de Waal as Girl match each other strongly throughout the night, though things sometimes felt a tad one note (Guy is depressed and Girl is earnest, and they stay that way for a while), but when the story requires true conviction, both were more than up for the task. And although Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova’s tunes often sound similar, they’re sung terrifically here, and when paired with Enda Walsh’s eloquently elegant book and Steven Hoggett’s transfixing movement choreography, the ingredients are all present to produce a theatrical event that is simply lovely.

Stuart Ward and Dani de Waal in the national tour of Once.
Stuart Ward and Dani de Waal in the national tour of Once.

It’s a shame that this small show must make its home in the gargantuan Boston Opera House, because many of the truly remarkable moments are thrilling but miniscule. The house was packed to capacity, but I imagine that patrons sitting anywhere beyond the first fifteen rows regretted not bringing binoculars. Additionally, the sound, like with most touring productions, is often either too strong or too muffled, struggling to amplify throughout the huge theater but contrasting the personal moments occurring on stage.

It’s too bad that the audience isn’t allowed to remain on stage during the performance—the theme of friendship would be stronger, the views would be better, and the exquisite details of the show would be seen by all.

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