Stage version of the enchanting 2007 movie musical can't touch the original's charms
As a movie musical, 2007's "Once" leapt off the screen. It was sweet and raw and honest, and the performances by its two leads — non-actors (and then-real life couple) Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova — brought the story of a lowly Irish busker and the young Czech woman he falls for to full, vivid life.
The stage version of "Once," playing at the Fisher Theatre through Feb. 15, has the casual, easygoing vibe of its source material but can't match its charm or whimsy. It mainly serves as a reminder of how well the movie worked.
The very things that propelled the movie — its naturalistic settings, John Carney's scrappy direction and, most notably, Hansard's driven, lived-in vocal delivery — are missing in the stage production. Even the songs, the life blood of the story, have trouble making an impression, save for "Falling Slowly," the Oscar-winning centerpiece of the score. What's left is the rough-around-the-edges tale of a guy and a girl (their names are, respectively, Guy and Girl) that never truly connects.
Guy (Stuart Ward) is a frustrated musician about to give up on his dream when he meets Girl (Dani de Waal), who sees him in a pub one day and is so enchanted by his playing that she practically begs him not to stop. He plays guitar, she plays piano, and the two wounded souls — both have romantic complications that keep them from acting on their feelings for one another — team up and scrape together the money to record an album. In the process, they slowly fall in love.
Part of the problem with the show, which won the Tony Award for Best Musical in 2012, is the staging. Cast members, who double as the show's live band, are seated on the sides of the stage throughout the show, which detracts from the intimacy of the scenes between the two leads. Those two leads, meanwhile, lack the spark needed to sell their romance. While they never act upon their desires — "Once" is the rare love story where the leads never kiss — the chemistry between them is essential in driving the story, and here, it fails to ignite.
Even the plotting is convoluted, and the barriers that stand between Guy and Girl are treated like afterthoughts. They both have significant others who have drifted out of the picture, but their inability to move forward isn't fleshed out, even as the show stretches well past the movie's 90-minute running time. Elsewhere, several side characters and their relationships to one another are left murky and unexplained.
There are some fun moments, and the production begins on a high note before the show even starts. As audience members enter the theater, they're invited onstage to hang out and grab a beer as cast members hold an impromptu jam session around them. The crowd is invited back onstage during intermission.
The novelty of being on stage underneath the lights outweighs the merits of the show, however. It's polite and well-intentioned but in telling this story, they got it right the first time. Once was enough.
Through February 15
8 p.m. Tuesday-Friday; 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturday; 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Sunday
3011 W. Grand Blvd., Detroit