For me, the most magical moments I’ve ever seen on stage aren’t what you might think. No, it’s not Elphaba levitating above the Ozian guards or Cinderella quick changing into her ball gown. Those have their charms, but to me the magic of theater is less about pyrotechnics and more about using inventive, purposeful moments of simple staging to elevate the most commonplace of settings. Think of the emotional gut-punch of Ernst taking off his jacket to reveal a swastika in “Cabaret,” when Cathy and Jamie finally lock eyes during their boat ride in “Last Five Years” or, more recently, the kids of the “Spring Awakening” revival escaping the confines of their harsh grey set at the end of “Purple Summer.” All three beautiful stage pictures that take audience members aback yet could be replicated by even the most budget-conscious community theater groups.
There were multiple moments like that in “Once,” a modest but emotionally satisfying musical, whose second national tour I saw at The Shubert Theater in New Haven. While the story, performances and music are solid (if not slightly hit-or-miss) “Once” is first and foremost a showcase for John Tiffany’s smart and lyrical Tony-winning direction. Set entirely in a Dublin pub (that hosts a pre-show concert and actually serves drinks to audience members at intermission), Tiffany uses old tables, chairs and a handful of props to denote scene changes to a vacuum shop, a recording studio and a bank. Flanking the stage, and often times becoming living parts of the scenery, is a Greek chorus of actor/musicians who play the supporting roles and double as the band. The merging of actor and musician, stagehand and back-up singer, is flawlessly done and so seamless that the immense amount of thought and care that went into the blocking feels incredibly organic. Just the scene change transitions alone are more artfully staged than most musicals you’re likely to see.
Closely based on the 2007 Irish indie, “Once” follows the relationship between a sullen busker (listed in the program as Guy) and a lonely, talkative Czech immigrant (you got it, Girl). Guy plays acoustic guitar, Girl plays classical piano and, eventually, writes lyrics to Guy’s music. They become friends, both bonding over their lost loves – for him a girlfriend who went to America, for her an estranged husband half a world away – and the beautiful music they make together. They decided to record a demo of their songs and, eventually, do so. Thankfully, the stage adaptation by Enda Walsh mostly sticks to the modest scale and raw emotionality of the film. Except for a few missteps – Walsh’s book contains a few too many trite aphorisms and one of the new characters, a music shop owner, feels like he wandered in from the “School of Rock” musical – “Once: The Musical” successfully conveys the spirit of the original while expanding that world to fit on a Broadway stage (the shaggy folk singer on screen is cleaned up into more of a brooding leading man, for instance.)
Speaking of that leading man, he’s inhabited well by Sam Cieri, who appropriately underplays the role and displays a rugged, powerful tenor. As his counterpart, Mackenzie Lesser-Roy brings a wry sense of humor and bright pop voice to Girl, even if her Czech accident never felt totally authentic.
But truly, the cast and plot are largely a vehicle for some terrific folk-rock tunes by Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova. While “Falling Slowly” is the most famous song (it won an Oscar and is now commonly heard on TV), there are a handful of beautiful and melodic songs that are worth the price of admission alone. From the haunting “If You Want Me” to the rhythmically inventive “When Your Mind’s Made Up” and the gorgeous Irish ballad “Gold,” the songs of “Once” are ones you could easily listen to devoid of the production.
But when combined with Tiffany’s brilliant-but-simple direction, magic really does happen. The scene where Guy and Girl sing together for the first time in the music shop is as captivating as any big song-and-dance number I can think of, despite the fact that both actors barely move from an upright piano. Same goes for a exquisitely still confessional scene that takes place on top of the bar and an a cappella number late in the second act.
“Once” isn’t a perfect show. The tone is muddled at times and the story, even with its melancholy charm, is hardly original. But there was a lot of joy on that stage, which is the other part of that stage magic I was talking about. “Once” overflowed with the joy that comes with talented musicians exercising their craft alongside friends and the joy that comes from making the mundane into art. Despite not partaking in any of the pub’s free flowing spirits, I can’t say I didn’t leave the theater a little buzzed.