Through Jan. 26


If you don’t arrive early for ONCE, you’ve missed half the show. To be clear, that assessment shows no disrespect to the cast of this 2011 Broadway adaptation of John Carney’s hit 2007 film; they’ll already be on stage by the time you get there.

For in this actor muso production in which the performers doubles as the show’s musicians, selected early playgoers are invited onto stage—and into a festive Dublin pub festooned with mirrors and amber lights (designed by Bob Crowley)—for a spirited Celtic jam session with a crackerjack band.

After stirring the blood with “Red-Haired Mary,” a ribald “Chandler’s Shop” and an eerie a capella women’s number whose sinuous, dissonant harmonies seemed taken directly from La Mystère des Voix Bulgares, actor Raymond Bokhour intones a song which mirrors the tale to come: a musical setting of poet Patrick Kavanagh’s “On Ragland Road.” Though Bokhour’s singer states his case of deep—but unwise—love with gravitas, taste and restraint, his somber gaze tells us all, as he stares into a past he can never reclaim.

It’s a very hard act to follow. But ONCE, the musical, does.

In the midst of the opening jam session, we spy a young man sporting a guitar so well-loved that its black lacquer’s been worn down to the wood. (Think Willie Nelson’s Trigger with a few decades’ less mileage on it.)

In this guy-meets-girl story, that guy is, well, Guy (Stuart Ward), a Dublin busker who’s just stopped busking as we first encounter him here. After repeatedly keening the word “Leave” in the song of the same name, he abandons his guitar in its case—only to be stopped by Dani de Waal’s character, Girl.

The Czechoslovakian immigrant and pianist decides to intervene on the basis of one song, demanding more music from Guy—and his services from his day job as a vacuum cleaner repairman (which is sent up later in the faux-plaintive “Funny Broken Hearted Hoover Fixer Sucker Guy”).

John Tiffany’s deft direction of Enda Walsh’s slight book borrows magical realism tricks from the realm of chamber theater. When Girl must have a broken vacuum to continue her conversation with Guy, one rolls from the shadows across stage. Scenes change with the ease of turning pages, as a few spare tables and chairs are reconfigured repeatedly to represent a music store, a claustrophobic repair shop, or an uptown bank.

Those familiar with the film already know that Girl sees Guy as a brilliant, heartfelt songwriter—and something of a human fixer-upper project. Here, in five days’ time, she takes him from total defeat to a demo CD of his heart-rending songs that must propel him to stardom.

Both have absent lovers. The ambitious ex-girlfriend Guy pines for (and sings of) has moved to New York, while Girl’s husband—and the father of her daughter, Ivanka (Kolette Tetlow)—lives somewhere undisclosed. But as the pair grow (and sing) closer, they become increasingly attracted to one another.

The mishaps and serendipities of those five days make for sequences both funny and poignant. Girl’s Czechoslovakian family, including a sharply drawn matriarch, Baruska (Donna Garner), takes Guy into their fold, assailing him with food and songs from the old country. An early band rehearsal disintegrates into comic chaos fueled by an overcaffeinated drummer, Svec (Matt DeAngelis).

This production is studded with little grace notes. Natasha Katz’s imaginative lights enhance a hilltop scene; Steve Hoggett’s subtle choreography shades in musical numbers.

But ONCE is ultimately about the music: Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova’s emotional score that keeps commenting on the relationship opening before us. Under Martin Lowe and Jason DeBord’s musical supervision, and Clive Goodwin’s flawless sound mix, a cast—and folk orchestra—of 13 moves us, repeatedly, through a brief two and a half hours.

Given the standing ovation richly deserved on opening night, I’ll wager the region will see this work in the years to come much more than ONCE.