There’s a reason the musical Once feels like theatrical kin to the acclaimed Black Watch from the National Theatre of Scotland – John Tiffany. He employs a minimalist style of theatrical staging, or maybe more appropriately termed “essential.” The esthetic may be a wholehearted embrace of legendary director Peter Brooks’ boiling down of theatrical moments to their elemental state, as witnessed recently by Seattle Rep’s production of Brooks’ The Suit.
Sometimes, when theater is created by people who know what they have to bring out, it becomes magical in the way that theater can be magic. Once is a reflection of that magic.
Seattle Repertory Theatre and STG Presents have joined to present the touring production of Once at The Paramount Theatre, here through June 8. Surely the production would have felt so much more personal on a smaller Seattle Rep stage, yet even in the cavernous Paramount, this “small” musical catches at people’s hearts and becomes bigger than any might think.
Once, the musical, is based on a lilting movie of the same name, written and directed by John Carney. The movie contains much of the music that ended up in the musical, so the musical had a big head start.
It’s a bitter sweet story of love and loss, and the songs reflect that. Since both the leads are musicians and the musical is about making music, the songs are reflective of mood, but are not used as plot-driving devices. You might spend your time appreciating the songs, but not straining to hear the lyrics in the same way you need to carefully listen to a Sondheim song. You’ll still know what’s happening in the story.
The story is a simple one. A young Irishman (Stuart Ward) is pining from losing his love to America, simultaneously wishing he could kick her out of his heart and wanting to give up the music he wrote because of his love for her. He meets a young Czech housewife (Dani de Waal) who pulls him out of his deep depression and convinces him that his music is also his ticket to happiness. Along the way, they fall in love, though each is aware of the strong (and probably stronger) pull of their prior respective relationships.
The charm of the stage production is embedded in the elemental stage work where changing a few chairs and rolling out a piano can create a new location, and all the musicians are also actors in the play and seated on stage the entire time. Set mirrors angled down toward center stage give the audience interesting angles of sightlines, heightening the visual interest. The actors/musicians also become dancers from time to time.
The dialogue is very spare, but extraordinarily sharp and drives the plot forward with the precision of a surgeon’s blade. The dialogue is crafted by Enda Walsh, noted Irish playwright. Recent productions of his The Walworth Farce and Disco Pigs were done by New Century Theatre Company and Sound Theatre Company, respectively. Once is some of his most accessible and charming work.
Dani de Waal is particularly acerbic and irresistible in her delivery. She is bossy and smart and funny and sad and strong and loving and perceptive and dutiful. That is both the script and her performance combining to lead us to want Guy and Girl to find each other and make us think they would be a better combination than the unseen romances they are still embroiled in. She plays a mean piano, too.
If you love to see theater done with a clear understanding of what is good and essential about live performance, then don’t miss this. If you love a tear-jerking love story, don’t miss this. If you’re sensitive about swearing…well, you probably should skip it. I had no expectations when I saw it and was a complete convert when I left. There are moments that will stay with me for a long time, I think.
For tickets, through June 8, go to HERE or call 877.STG.4TIX.