From the moment one enters the National Theatre, it becomes clear that Once is not your typical Broadway fare. Rather than seeing closed drapes and hearing piped-in pre-show music, the first view of the stage, designed by Bob Crowley, includes many audience members onstage with drinks in hand enjoying a live Irish/Indie/Folk/Rock band dancing and playing amongst them. The audience is eventually shunted offstage to their seats while the band continues seamlessly into the opening. The unit set is reminiscent of an Irish pub, with golden lighting and dark wood-paneled walls, filled with mirrors. The semi-circular space opens to the audience and is backed by an upstage bar. This open space welcomes you for the evening, and the location shifts as needed when tables, chairs, piano, and drum kit are all danced on and off by the cast.
The unique aspects of the musical also include an ensemble which sits visibly onstage for the majority of the show and performs all orchestral duties. Each is given their moment to shine either musically or as characters in the story.
Aspects of the romantic comedy that are front and center in Once, are also atypical. The Irishman playing guitar and singing his own songs to a nearly empty street corner, who is about to give up on his creative dreams, is known only as Guy. The Czech pianist who hears him and insists his talent can’t be set aside is known only as Girl. They are brought together further because she has a broken Hoover and needs his skills from his day job where he helps his father in their vacuum repair shop.
These characters are surrounded by others who tend toward the quirky screwball comedy-types, but all are sentimental and charming. The delightfully unusual production elicited 11 Tony nominations when the show opened on Broadway in 2012. It racked up awards with eight Tony Awards, including one for Best Musical, the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Musical, and the 2013 Grammy for Best Musical Theater Album. Based on the motion picture written and Directed by John Carney, the musical’s book is by Enda Walsh, with music and lyrics by Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova, the leads in the original low-budget 2007 Indie movie.
Once is focused on music, as the lifeblood of its main characters, the central aspect of the story, and the vehicle through which it is portrayed. We are never far from a tune as the play progresses, and the beauty of the performances are moving. Sam Cieri plays his guitar and sings achingly from the heart. A section of the body of his guitar is scraped clear of its protective lacquer by the intensity of the Guy’s strum, and when his voice stretches into a raspy falsetto, the raw emotion of his longing and pain is gut-wrenching.
Mackenzie Lesser-Roy plays classical piano beautifully, but her artistic soul is more clearly seen when she harmonizes and accompanies the Guy in a newly-written song which he has not done anything with yet. “Falling Slowly” is the song from the 2007 movie which won the Academy Award for Best Original Song. It is one of many performances in the play which are magical. Rife with talent, the ensemble plays multiple instruments as they support the story and the music brilliantly. A standout in Act Two was an a capella version of “Gold,” simply staged and gorgeously sung by the company.
The technical aspects of both sound, by Clive Goodwin, and Natasha Katz’s lighting were superb. At my count, there were 29 different instruments played onstage, many of which used sound amplification. Despite actors dancing with multiple wireless instruments, the blend and balance with voices was astounding. Lights constantly transformed the set to different locales and focused audience attention on individuals, creating mood and ambience as needed.
Once is is a masterful production and one well-worth seeing during its brief run in our area at National Theatre. Don’t miss it!
Running Time: Two hours and 20 minutes, including a 15-minute intermission.