On paper, Once is something that has become more standard practice in the world of Broadway: A screen-to-stage adaptation. But aside from this typical transition, Once the musical manages to be something refreshingly different.
The show, which made its Lexington debut at the Lexington Opera House Friday night and runs through Sunday, manages to carry the heart, soul, smallness and music of the original low-budget 2007 indie film while incorporating the slightest dash of Broadway buoyancy and several other staging and instrumental elements to give the musical its own unique, joyous and affecting voice.
The show’s intimacy and atmosphere were established before the musical even started as some of the dozen or so actor-musicians performed on stage as the audience made their way to their seats, even allowing for patrons to join them onstage for a drink in the dusky Irish pub setting. Guy (Sam Cieri) eventually emerges amongst them to sing the romantic lament Leave on his acoustic guitar, an instrument — along with his romantic life and musical aspirations — that has seen better days.
Guy is ready to give up on making it as a musician and spend his life fixing vacuum cleaners at his father’s repair shop. But his words and melodies catch the ear of Girl (Mackenzie Lesser-Roy), an optimistic Czech woman and pianist who sees the heart and potential in Guy’s songs and encourages him to see his dreams through.
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Despite Guy’s reluctance to perform, he and Girl form a quick yet organic musical connection in a music shop where they perform the Oscar-winning song Falling Slowly. It is Girl’s upbeat personality that gives Guy the motivation he needs to progressively put his music out there and re-energize his resolve.
While the Guy and Girl connection is creatively clear, the budding romantic connection is far more complicated. Guy’s ex-girlfriend, who he still longs for and is the source of his songs’ heartbroken soul, is currently residing in New York City while Girl is a single mother and still technically married, even though her husband has moved out. Under these circumstances, the two musicians’ fondness for each other increases with each awkward interaction and musical note.
While the original film largely centered around the two lead characters, the supporting stage cast of Once play crucial roles in the proceedings in regards to humor, narrative and music. The actor-musicians — playing instruments as varied as guitar, accordion, violin, banjo, cello, mandolin and bass — are on stage through most of the production, either providing prop delivery musical-choreography segways between minimalistic set changes or swelling accompaniment to Guy and Girl’s vulnerable folk-inspired songs.
New tertiary characters like music shop owner Billy (John Hays), and Girl’s three live-in roommates all add some zaniness and an element of unpredictability that wasn’t found in the original film while both lead and supporting actors are given some laugh-out-loud lines thanks to Irish playwright Enda Walsh’s script that the movie never had. Meanwhile, both Guy’s father Da (Bristol Pomeroy) and Girl’s mother Baruška (Patricia Bartlett) provide a window into the root of the lead characters’ respective personalities.
While many of these changes might have been necessary to scale up Once to Broadway levels, the musical still feels very grounded in reality and genuine emotions thanks to the anchor of its leads and incredible songs. Cieri plays Guy with a raspy and mostly intelligible Irish brogue, nervous energy and a raw hurt to both to his singing and guitar playing (he managed to break a string in two different songs) that lacks any amount of Broadway polish, which is for the better. Girl’s determined and winsome personality proves complementary to Guy and Lesser-Roy plays it well while occasionally showing traces of Girl’s own brokenness. In contrast the the film’s leads (Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglová), who were musicians first and actors second, Cieri and Lesser-Roy prove to be exceptionally skilled on both fronts, providing the musical chops, emotion and palpable chemistry the story needs.
The songs themselves, primarily written by Hansard, are naked portraits of love, both lost and found. The musical allows these songs to be performed and delivered almost entirely in a natural realistic way with only the occasional splash of choreography provided by the musicians in the supporting cast. It is the music, among many other characteristics, that make this musical’s title of Once seem appropriate, since there is a good chance it is the number of times theatre audiences will see a musical quite like this one.
Blake Hannon: firstname.lastname@example.org.
IF YOU GO
Once — The Musical
What: Touring production of the Tony Award-winning musical presented by Broadway Live at the Opera House
When: 2 and 8 p.m. April 23, 1 and 6:30 p.m. April 24
Where: Lexington Opera House, 401 W. Short St.
Tickets: $55 to $110