Thursday, November 14, 2013

ONCE, a tender little Irish love story musical, gets lost in the Palace Theatre

About half an hour before the start of ONCE, the touring version of the musical which is now appearing at the Palace, the audience is invited on stage for beer, music and dancing.  It turns out to be a big Irish jam session.   An intermission hoe-down is also included in the staging.  Come early.  Join in.  Have fun!

Many of today’s Broadway musicals have large casts, grand sets, impressive  engineered graphics, and big orchestras in the theatre’s pits which play lush music.  ONCE is not such a work.  It is a tender little musical love story, which basically takes place in a Dublin pub.

The minimalistic set is transformed into various places by adding a few tables and chairs and some strategic lighting.  Though the songs are often dynamic, there is no rock and roll, no hip hop, and no show stoppers. 

The cast members are proficient triple threat performers who act, sing, dance and play the musical instruments which make up the orchestra.  They play such tunes as the depressing “Love,” the pretty and plaintive “Falling Slowly,” the beautiful “Gold,” and the dance-inducing “North Strand.”  There’s nothing that will make the hit parade of great songs.  It’s emotional Irish “woe-is-me” music.

ONCE is the story of an Irish musician (Guy) and a Czech immigrant (Girl) who become emotionally linked.  As the musical starts, Guy, a thirty-something busker, is singing a ballad of unrequited love.  He is in despair over the loss of the-love-of-his-life who left him and went to America.  Girl is watching, listening, and approaches him.  Posing personal questions, she finds out that he is giving up music because singing songs of unrequited love is just too difficult.   Seem like an extreme reaction?  Not if you remember that the Irish are noted for their extreme emotions, the acting out of their angst, and the expression of those feelings in songs, poetry and staged drama.

Of course, the two develop an emotional relationship, but are confronted with the barrier that Girl is married to a man who has left her and their daughter, but may return.  Over the period of one week, the duo, with the help of various friends, create a CD of raw, emotional, music.  A vacuum cleaner, a piano, a recording studio, hope, laughter and Irish anguish and frustration all play into the tale.  The expected happy ending may or may not take place, depending on how you interpret the touching final scene.

ONCE is based on John Carney’s 2006 film of the same name.  The book was written by Enda Walsh, and many of the film’s songs, which were written by Glen Hansard and Mark√©ta Irglov√°, have been retained.

The musical premiered on Broadway in 2012 and received eleven Tony nominations.  It won eight, including being named Best Musical.  It is now on stage in London and continues its Broadway run.

Having seen the Broadway production, while watching the local showing, it became obvious that the intimacy of the musical is the bane of the touring production on the Palace stage.  The conversations are quiet, the relationships intimate, much of the music quietly heartfelt.   This worked in the Broadway theatre in which small comedies and dramas are usually staged, but in the Palace, which is almost three times the size of the Big Apple’s facility, both in stage and auditorium size, the intimacy disappeared.  At the Ohio or Hanna the show might have worked well, but the revenues so necessary to support touring productions would not have been as great, so big had to be used.

As is, between the Irish and Czech accents, and the quiet interactions, much of the dialogue is lost.  The sound designer and technicians had the difficult job of keeping the miked speaking voices soft enough for the intimacy, but loud enough to be heard.  Unfortunately, they were often unsuccessful.  Many of the comments at intermission centered on audience members complaining that they were not able to hear or understand the dialogue. 

Both Dani de Waal (Girl) and Stuart Ward (Guy) have excellent singing voices, and well interpret both their roles and the lyrics.  Unfortunately, there is seemingly an emotional disconnect between them.  Whether this is the vast stage and the separation from the audience, or a lack of real chemistry, it gets in the way of the necessary believability.

Strong performances are put in by Donna Garner as Baruska, Evan Harrington as Billy, Benjamin Magnuson as the Bank Manager, and Alex Nee as Andrej.

The entire cast impressed with their musical performances.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT:  The touring production of ONCE is well staged, has strong musical appeal, but fails to grab and hold as it should.   It  is an intimate musical which loses much of its charm due to the vast Palace stage and auditorium size.  Here’s a case of the right show in the wrong setting.

Tickets for ONCE , which runs through November 24, 2013 at the Palace Theatre, can be ordered by calling 216-241-6000 or going to www.playhousesquare.org.