Could I be the only person who viscerally dislikes “Once?” Its many fans talk about the Broadway musical, whose national tour now plays at the Academy of Music, as if it were a theatrical feast with all manner of new tastes. I think of it as the grade-B version of lunchmeat — a lot of fat, not much to chew on and getting old fast.
When this show about a repressed love affair opened on Broadway two seasons back, I saw it and I figured it would last a couple months. It did, and then went on to win a Tony Award for best musical. And seven others. It’s still running.
What bothers me most is the incessant whining that “Once” calls its score – repeating minor chords and grossly melancholy lyrics. Song by song, these might work as passable introspection. But they make for a stunningly ill-natured collection that frequently and unsuccessfully tries to have something to do with the plot of “Once.” One of these songs, “Falling Slowly,” won the original-song Oscar in 2007; it comes from the film “Once,” the source for the stage show. The song calls for a lover to “take this sinking boat and point it home,” precisely what I wanted to do with myself the other night when I saw “Once” a second time.
Even songs of “Once” that seem hopeful in their lyrics are so plaintively scored, I laughed when I heard them again. (Admittedly, the audience around me was more respectful.) Take this line: “Tear your curtains down, for sunlight is like gold,” sung as if the lyric really means Shut up your houses! The world will murder you!
These fatuous songs – try this lyric (with a tear of sorrow in your voice): “I’m sorry that you had to see the strength inside me burning…” – were written by Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová who, respectively, are Irish and Czech, like the two main characters of “Once.” The script for the play, which contains some snappy dialogue, is by the respected Irish playwright Enda Walsh.
Here’s the nutshell of “Once”: Guy (as he’s called in the Playbill) is about to throw away his guitar because the music he sings on Dublin’s streets is taking him nowhere. Just where he wanted to go with it is never clear, but he meets Girl (as she’s called) who has her own idea. They are both damaged in love, with partners who’ve left them for reasons never fully divulged.
Girl quickly becomes Guy’s strength. The world, she tells him, needs your music – and that premise for the revival of Guy’s confidence is the most galling part of the plot of “Once.” If the world needs your music, it better be better than this stuff, about love, longing, loss, languor and letdown – the five lugubrious Ls of “Once,” for which wearing your heart on your sleeve is not a metaphor but an actual mess.
In “Once,” the cast of actors is also its on-stage orchestra, and they are super-impressive both in their acting and musicianship. In fact, I believe the talent in “Once” may be the reason lots of people love the show. Its national-tour cast of 13 – also good dancers who can sing, play instruments and dance all at once – performs on everything from mandolin to accordion, percussion and electric bass, and they are a joy to watch at work. If you go, arrive early. Before the show begins with its first number (lyric: “I disappoint myself, you should leave”), the cast gives a lovely unannounced concert of Irish songs.
On the tour, Guy and Girl are played by Stuart Ward and Dani de Waal. Ward interprets the part without the subtle macho quality and aching vulnerability Steve Kazee gave it on Broadway, and in this touring version, de Waal plays Girl with more of a wide-eyed little-kid sense of spirit than Cherry Hill native Cristin Milioti gave the more somber original character. (Both Kazee and Milioti have moved on from the Broadway cast.)
These very different interpretations from the Broadway version don’t change the show much one way or another, but they do make for less chemistry between the two on stage. What’s different is the way some of the songs are delivered, without all the Broadway cries of oh no, no no no no-o-o-h! in the musical bridges, in case you didn’t feel the pain.
Clive Goodwin’s sound design, the crispest of any current musical on Broadway, is less successful in the massive Academy of Music, with its drier acoustics, and Bob Crowley’s bar set continues to use a large, scruffy mirror to fine effect.
That bar set is an actual bar selling drinks during intermission, so if you want to see what the house looks like from the actors’ perspectives, head up on stage during the break and look over the gorgeous multi-balconied interior. For me, it was the night’s highlight._“Once,” on a national tour, runs through Nov. 10 at the Academy of Music, Broad and Locust Streets. 215-731-3333 or www.kimmelcenter.org/broadway.