‘Once’ at Hippodrome Theatre at the France-Merrick Performing Arts Center

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Baltimore’s Hippodrome Theatre unfurls a fresh season with a rowdy millennial musical about star-crossed lovers set in the big, blue-collar heart of Ireland. Once is the 2012 Tony Award-winning Best Musical about finding your true voice and then letting your passions wail.

But the book — adapted from the hit 2006 indie film by playwright Enda Walsh — is almost beside the point. Think of this one as a Celtic tribal songfest, a less well-behaved Riverdance that just doesn’t have the patience for  all that bleedin’ footwork.

Stuart Ward and Dani de Waal from the ONCE Tour Company. © Joan Marcus.

Stuart Ward and Dani de Waal from the ONCE Tour Company. © Joan Marcus.

Arriving audience members are welcomed up on stage to order drinks from the bar and mix with a scruffy Celtic ensemble of string players, rhythm makers, bowers and singers. All of this is set in a brick replica of a neighborhood pub, so there is no curtain to raise here. Eventually the guests leave and the musicians sit on the sidelines waiting to play their instruments and become all the colorful characters in the evening’s drama.

Stuart Ward plays Guy in this national touring company, and one could hardly hope for a more attractive leading man or for a more dynamic rhythm guitarist. The way he rips into his lost-love lament, “Leave,” like an act of self-flagellation, tells us all we need to know about his isolation  and pain.

Luckily, he finds sympathetic encouragement for his music in the form of a newly arrived Czech girl, identified in the play only as “Girl.” One must accept Girl’s sudden appearance in Guy’s life on faith. Guy works in his father’s vacuum repair shop, you see, and she happens to have a Hoover that “won’t suck.”

Without ever admitting it, the script wants us to accept Girl as a sort of divine emissary sent to get Guy back on track. The less one questions that the better.

Dani de Waal makes for a most charming Girl in Charm City. When called for, she plays the on-stage piano with a lilting professionalism, and she certainly has the singing voice of an angel. Her solo performance of “The Hill” is the enchantment highlight of the evening.

This must be said for De Waal’s tentative Czech accent, however: It does not help us suspend any of our disbelief.

The film’s semi-hit, “Falling Slowly,” is well presented here, and makes for a nice closing anthem as well.

Other new plaintive ballads by Glen Hanssard and Marketa Irglova, especially “When Your Mind’s Made Up,” are often haunting and heartfelt without giving us a lot lyrically to hold onto. The emphasis is more on passion than poetry, though that is turned into a unique strength in this decidedly non-traditional book show

Director John Tiffany keeps the emphasis on the dramatic conflicts and never loses an actor in all the inavoidable foot traffic. Lighting Designer Natasha Katz might have been more aggressive in her underscoring of the various changes in settings. But the touring production is handsome and expressive when it counts.

One of the play’s quirks is that when Girl’s emigre relatives speak in English, their dialogue is projected in Czech surtitles. It’s a cute joke that only has one plot payoff — when Girl says something to Guy in Czech and this time the audience alone is clued in on the English translation: “I love you.”

'ONCE' Tour Company. © Joan Marcus.

‘ONCE’ Tour Company. © Joan Marcus.

Most of the time there is no failure to communicate for this adrenaline-rush of a folk-pop entertainment. ONCE’s multi-talented ensemble of actor-musicians cook up an ethnic stew thick and tasty enough to float its make-believe Emerald Isle.

Running Time: Two hours and 10 minutes, with a 15-minute intermission.

Once plays through September 14, 2014  at The Hippodrome Theatre at The France-Merrick Performing Arts Center – 12 North Eutaw Street, in Baltimore, MD. For tickets, call (800) 343.3103, or purchase them online.

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