Musicals — they just don’t make them like they used to, and maybe that’s a good thing.
Musicals like Jonathan Larson’s “Rent,” ushered in a new era of contemporary musicals that have flourished and conquered the Great White Way. Straying from the traditional form, these new musicals changed the very culture of Broadway as we know it. Joining the likes of recent Broadway greats such as “Spring Awakening”and “The Book of Mormon”is “Once” — the 2012 Tony-sweeper that opened in San Francisco on the Curran stage on Tuesday.
“Once,” based on the 2007 Irish indie film of the same name, tells a familiar tale. Boy meets girl. They make music together. They fall in love. In the film, real life musicians Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova star as the two main characters simply known as Guy and Girl. Together, they wrote, composed and performed all of the original songs in the film. With its captivating soundtrack, Hansard and Irglova’s obscure indie flick found its way to the Academy Awards in 2007 and took home the award for Best Original Song for the ballad “Falling Slowly.”
The musical retains much of the rawness and naturalistic appeal of its predecessor. Unlike a typical Broadway spectacle, “Once”boasts no tap numbers, elaborate revolving sets or hidden full-sized orchestras. In fact, the entirety of the show plays out in an antiquated Dublin bar — one designed by Bob Crowley and lit by Natasha Katz, both of whom snagged Tony Awards for their design work. Taking live theater to a whole new level, prior to the show and during intermission, audience members are invited up to mingle with the cast members and encouraged to grab a pint or two at the makeshift bar.
Ultimately, the heart of the musical masterpiece lies simply and utterly in its wistful yet majestic score and the actor-musicians on stage who bring the melodic tunes to life. They are multi-instrumentalists and contemporary dancers with Broadway voices and a collective talent that far exceeds that of your average Broadway cast.
In the stage show, the Guy (Stuard Ward) is an Irish busker by night and a “Hoover fixer” (the Irish term for vacuum) by day. Heartbroken by his ex-girlfriend who moved to New York months prior, he vents his frustration in song through the opening number “Leave.” The Girl (Dani de Waal), who is in the audience, is moved by the performance and insists that he fix her “Hoover.” In return, she’d pay him in music. The two reconvene at a music shop and together perform the spellbinding “Falling Slowly.” She pushes him to pursue his musical dreams and eventually helps him to create a demo. Somewhere along the way, they fall in love in spite of their other romantic entanglements. Beautiful music ensues.
De Waal dazzles and awes as the Girl. The British actress flawlessly captures both the quirky and charismatic charm of the character while highlighting her strengths and struggles as a single mother in a foreign country. Aside from “Falling Slowly” and the dynamic ensemble numbers, “Gold” and “When Your Mind’s Made Up,” De Waal’s “If You Want Me” and “The Hill” are the two most riveting and beguiling performances in all of the work.
“Once”is the kind of musical that will make one feel completely inadequate. The sheer talent of the performers and the transformative power of the musical score is immensely overwhelming — in the best sense of the word. It is a delicately crafted theatrical gem unlike any other and will remind audiences of what truly makes a great musical — the music.
“Once” is playing at the Curran Theater in San Francisco until July 13.