Some shows you like. Some shows you don’t. And then there are shows you want to like but let you down.
The touring production of “Once” at the Kauffman Center bears an extremely close resemblance to the version I saw on Broadway.
All the strengths and weaknesses of the original are up there on the Kauffman stage. After seeing the show twice, I have to label it an admirable effort to frame personal tunes by singer/songwriters within the context of a dramatic narrative.
The 2006 movie it’s based on did that fairly well, thanks to the intimacy allowed by placing a camera inches from a singer’s face, not to mention the realism dictated by a tight budget.
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Here’s what’s good about the stage show: It’s unlike any Broadway musical you’ve seen; the songs by Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova don’t follow conventional Broadway songwriting formulas; the arrangements using mainly traditional folk instruments are surprisingly powerful and dynamic; and eventually the narrative about unrequited love and the inherent spirituality of music achieves a modest degree of poignancy.
Here’s what’s not so good: The stage version trades the film’s gritty sensibility for facile optimism; the writing relies heavily on obvious laugh lines befitting a TV sitcom; the stage is filled with cartoonish “eccentrics” and the principal characters are fundamentally false.
I can’t say there aren’t fleeting moments of truth and beauty. But often the whole thing feels like a commercially calculated construct designed for undemanding audiences ready to have their buttons pushed. It’s a shallow reflection of the movie that wasn’t all that deep to begin with.
Like the film, the Broadway show is a quirky love story between a Dublin street musician and a piano-playing Czech immigrant. Identified only as Guy and Girl, the two meet just as Guy is in the midst of an emotional/artistic crisis and intends to give up music altogether.
Girl believes this can’t really be the case because when she hears one of Guy’s tormented love songs, she instinctively understands that he and the woman he wrote it for have unfinished business.
Girl has her own history — a daughter, an absent husband and an apartment full of Czech relatives. The two artistic souls connect and fall in love and they long for each other so much that it aches.
But Girl’s husband is still out there and may return. And Guy’s girlfriend — the one he wrote the song for — is in New York, where he might decide to join her. So while Guy and Girl are deeply in love, a prim sense of propriety governs their actions.
Director John Tiffany makes good use of the scenic design by Bob Crowley (who also designed the costumes). The action unfolds on a single set that represents an Irish pub. Mirrors placed at angles behind the bar add depth and visual dynamics.
Scenes set in other locations — the street, a banker’s office, a vacuum-cleaner repair shop owned by Guy’s father, Girl’s apartment — are quickly set up and dissolved by actors pushing tables and chairs. The large ensemble, when not involved directly in the action, is seated on either side of the stage.
As Guy, Stuart Ward is an occasionally effective actor. In his hands, the role’s surliness in the early going wears thin quickly. But the intensity he musters later in the show as Guy begs Girl to join him in New York convincingly reveals the character’s conflicted emotions. His diction is a problem throughout. Many of Guy’s lyrics are simply incomprehensible.
Dani de Waal plays Girl as an effervescent cutie-pie, which doesn’t really track with the character’s backstory or her recurring laugh line: “I’m always serious. I’m Czech.” She, is however, a good singer.
The show acquires a more serious tone in Act 2, allowing the actors to invest more energy in the lives of these two damaged people; both de Waal and Ward look relieved that they can settle down and just play the relationship without repeatedly cueing the laughter-primed viewers.
Of the show’s 14 songs (plus two reprises), three stand out: “Falling Slowly,” the plaintive duet that won an Oscar; “Gold,” a poignant song enlivened considerably by Martin Lowe’s exciting orchestrations and Steven Hoggett’s choreography; and “When Your Mind’s Made Up,” a driving love song with a repetitive chorus that again benefits from Lowe’s arrangement. An a cappella reprise of “Gold” in Act 2 is a highlight.
Each performance begins organically. Before the show officially begins, members of the audience are allowed to go onstage and mingle in the “pub.” Gradually musicians arrive and begin a lively, seemingly spontaneous folk jam.
On opening night they began with a raucous group version of “Fare Thee Well,” moved into an Eastern European piece with powerful female harmonies and eventually wound down with actor Scott Waara (who plays Guy’s father in the show proper) delivering a nice solo performance of the Irish folk song “Raglan Road.”
These slightly anarchic performances of real folk music whet the viewer’s appetite for more of the same. But what we get is the show, which is never as exciting as the prelude.