Unconventional Broadway in “Once”

Irish film turned musical reaches Cleveland Playhouse

Joseph Verbovszky, Staff Reporter

“Once” is a pleasant departure from the standard fare of Broadway musicals. It’s a lot simpler and quieter. One usually associates Broadway with blaring, brassy orchestras, dozens of characters and extras and expansive opulent sets. You will find none of these in “Once.” And that’s not necessarily a bad thing; although, there are points where the narrative drags. Overall, “Once” tells a simple yet beautiful story and does it very well.

The plot follows Guy (played by Stuart Ward), a lovesick vacuum repairman in Dublin whose songs of love for his ex-girlfriend only cause him pain. One day, during one of his sorrowful recitals, in walks Girl (Dani De Waal), a Czech immigrant who needs her Hoover fixed. Herself a music-lover and consummate pianist, she is drawn to Guy’s love songs and succeeds in persuading him into recording music and flying to New York to make money and reunite with his ex-girlfriend. Naturally, Guy falls for Girl as it was ultimately she who inspires him to sing again and gives him hope for the future.

It took me a second glance, if you will, to realize how compact the timeframe of this musical actually is. Everything happens over the course of a week. Yes, everything: meeting, getting to know each other, Girl convincing Guy to get a bank loan to rent the recording studio, getting the bank loan, recording at the studio, saying farewell. Normally, getting to know someone takes longer than that, and where can I get a loan approved in a single day, literally, for a song? I was beginning to be reminded of notorious Carlie Rae Jepsen song; I just met you and this is crazy but can I persuade you to undertake a fantastically financially risky scheme to make it big in the music business? Granted, Guy supposedly sings amazing and heartfelt songs that should force us to suspend our disbelief. But does he succeed?

Yes and no.

Guy’s music is good, very good even, but it didn’t inspire that sense of awe necessary to justify the characters’ actions. If anything, I would have said Girl should have been the one going to New York.
During her main piano solo, I was shocked to her Girl’s thick Czech accent give way to a low and beautiful voice, full of passion and anguish, as she confessed her impossible love for Guy. Now that would have sold records.

Overall, the music of “Once” is a pleasant departure from the standard Broadway fare. There’s no orchestra and all of the music is made by the few instruments on stage, including a guitar, a mandolin and a piano. This makes the music considerably less bombastic than what’s normally found on Broadway. I’d classify it as mostly folk with a little bit of pop. Likewise, almost all of the songs distinguish themselves from the spoken parts, rather than characters singing their lines, making “Once” more like a play about musicians rather than a musical, something that works surprisingly well in this case.

The stage design, like the music, reflects the intention to tell a relatively unadorned and simple story where content matters more than appearance. That’s not to say that the set doesn’t look good. It’s a delightfully rustic recreation of an Irish pub, with a bar, mirrors, a wooden table and gas lamps.
Generally, “Once” tells a simple love story, but delves into the complexities of that love. It usually succeeds, but not always. Sometimes the narrative drags and the quiet story becomes rather sleepy. Likewise, the music is not always as heartfelt as the plot that drives it. But more often than not, “Once” delivers a unique and moving tale that is a welcome departure from the usual Broadway musical.