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Wednesday, June 19, 2024

Theatre review: Once is a story about love

While the musical Once has all the hallmarks of a beautiful love story, it is much more than that. Once is a story about love.

On its surface, Once is a typical love story between a guy and a girl, but you don’t have to dig very far into Enda Walsh’s wonderful book and in the equally beautiful music by Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová to find more than that. The love of family and even culture find themselves wrapped inside our sometimes inexplicable human desire and need for music.

Having given up on life, love and his music, Once follows the story of a young Dubliner, known simply as “Guy”, and how he finds passion again through the help of a young Czech “Girl”, who has her own problems with love. Recognizing something special in his music, the two form a bond that transcends the traditional, and it is in their unique relationship that ultimately makes Once work so well.  A line at the top of the show – “ask an Irishman to sing a sad song, he’ll do it every time” – sets the tone, with an air of hopeful melancholy that permeates throughout. And even as the ending remains ambiguous, it is also surprisingly fulfilling.

What also comes as a surprise is how intimate it all feels inside the cavernous Queen Elizabeth Theatre. Much of that comes from being immediately drawn to Walsh’s characters, but it also has much to do with Bob Crowley’s Irish pub design that envelopes the QE stage. It is a double-edged sword though, as the set extends beyond the curtain on both sides making sightlines problematic for some seats on both sides of the house. Even from our seats, some of the action on stage right was not visible; those seated even further to the outside of the auditorium on both sides would have seen even less.

There is an organic feel to director John Tiffany’s staging and Steven Hoggett’s movement that also raises the bar. With every scene taking place inside the Irish pub, the different locales are often only hinted at with the placement of a couple of chairs or tables, and delineated through Natasha Katz’s wonderful lighting design. Forgoing a traditional choreography for the most part, Hoggett often uses spare movements to underscore many of the scenes, some of which are so exquisitely realized that they are as moving as the songs and text themselves.

Of course, a musical about music takes some amazingly talented musicians, and this entire cast delivers, each required to play a multitude of instruments as well as act, sing and move.

Leading the way are Stuart Ward and Dani de Waal as Guy and Girl. There is a chemistry between the two that is highlighted each time they come together for story and song. Ward is also killer on the acoustic guitar, and de Waal is equally as accomplished on the piano.

Other stand-outs, in a sea of talent, include Scott Waara as Guy’s dad, who starts the show with a haunting Irish ballad, and gets one of the most emotionally realized moments of the evening as he urges his son to follow his heart. Then there is Tina Stafford as the accordion playing mom, and Alex Nee as the young Czech who looks to better his life. As the music store owner, Evan Harrington goes a little over-the-top but manages a certain lovability inside larger-than-life bravado, and Jon-Alex MacFarlane gets to the heart of his character as the banker.

A small quibble, and probably more to do with the acoustics inside the QE Theatre, but some of the vocals got lost on opening night, especially in the first half of the show.

They say that once is never enough, and that old adage is certainly true here.  Having seen the original Broadway production, this is one touring show that manages to live up to the hype of its famous cousin. It is also one the best of these Broadway-style shows to have landed on Vancouver’s Queen Elizabeth Theatre in a very long time.

You should go. Be sure to give yourself plenty of time though as the pub opens early.

Once with book by Enda Walsh and music & lyrics by Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová. Directed by John Tiffany. Based on the motion picture written and directed by John Carney. A Broadway Across Canada presentation. On stage at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre (650 Hamilton St, Vancouver) until November 22. Tickets are available online.

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