REVIEW: 'Once'

photo by Joan Marcus

—by Jeff Hudson

Decades ago, major musicals originated as Broadway shows, and later morphed into movies. And that still happens—Les Miserables, for example (a Broadway musical in 1878, followed by the film version in 2012).

But nowadays, things more commonly work the other way around: from Hollywood to Broadway. For example, Dirty Dancing (a 1987 Hollywood film made for $6 million—modest by Hollywood standards) got made-over as Broadway musical in 2007, 30 years after the movie’s heyday. The stage version played locally earlier this year, in the break between Christmas and New Year’s.

Currently on stage (hosted by the Broadway Sacramento series) we’ve got a show that’s a bit different:  Once, which started as a feisty little indie film from Ireland in 2007 (produced on a miniscule $150,000 budget, with an almost hand-made feel). The film did well at Sundance and other festivals, picked up an Academy Award nomination for Best Song (as well as a Grammy nomination for the soundtrack, and it reportedly grossed about $20 million in its initial release).

Once was adapted as a Broadway show in 2012, and the musical version did very well, too,  winning multiple Tony Awards including Best Musical. The Broadway production has closed, but the touring production is making the rounds, and, all told, the stage version has also reportedly sold about $110 million worth of tickets. 

The touring musical began a short run in Sacramento on Tuesday (running through Sunday, April 19). And the production makes it clear that it is not standard Broadway series fare as you enter the hall; prior to the show, several musicians from the show’s band jam for a bit, and the audience is welcome to come up on stage. There’s even a bar where you can order a drink (the production’s set depicts an Irish pub). This opportunity to “get close” to the performers is not a first. At least one previous Broadway Sacramento show has seated a portion of the audience on stage, and over at the Mondavi Center, they’ve presented several performances for a small audience seated on risers on the Jackson Hall stage. But the message that in this musical the standard rules—with ushers standing guard to make sure no one goes up onto the stage for a peek—had been relaxed a bit was warmly received by the audience: a successful icebreaker, if you will.

Then the show phased in with a winsome performance of the Irish standard “Raglan Road,” a smart choice given the song’s lyrics about a young man who embarks on a romantic relationship even though he acknowledges “I saw the danger” (i.e. he’s likely to get hurt). But he does it anyway. 

It was perfect setup for the story that follows involving a sensitive (yet troubled) aspiring singer-songwriter/guitarist, who’s been sent into an emotional tailspin by a recent romantic disappointment. But everything turns around after he meets a plucky Czech girl who just happens to be a solid pianist. They make beautiful music together. And they scrape together enough money to go into a recording studio. And the hastily-made recording turns out remarkably well. And the two clearly have eyes for each other. Will the Czech girl forget about her (absent) husband, and will the Irish boy stop carrying a torch for the girlfriend who left for America and broke his heart? You’ll have to buy a ticket to find out. 

Once works several of the classic plot patterns for a musical, but it does so using a somewhat different formula than most of the recent musicals adapted from commercial Hollywood sources: the storytelling style is more relaxed, with a decidedly “artier” feel, and the score (in the indie-rock vein) has several lovely songs. And the show doesn’t push too hard for an overly tidy, cheerful ending—all of which makes for a refreshing experience.

The leads—Stuart Ward as “Guy,” and Dani de Waal as “Girl”—get some nice onstage chemistry going. Ward’s role involves a bit more stress on internal anguish and uncertainty than might be ideal from my point of view, but in a musical playing in a huge venue, you have to make sure that the folks in the balcony can “get it,” so I’m not inclined to fault Ward’s performance. As the pretty girl with a plan, de Waal uses plucky determination to pull Ward out of his funk, and her Czech-girl-living-in-Ireland routine actually wears surprisingly well over the course of the show.

The show unfolds on a single set, an attractively grungy on-stage pub, including many mirrors that are used to good effect. Each member of the cast comes with a musical instrument, and in addition to playing one or more character roles they serve as pub denizens and pit orchestra. When they’re not in character, they sit at the edges of the stage and periodically chime in with instrumentals.

Once plays at 8 p.m. through Saturday, with 2 p.m. matinees on Thursday, Saturday and Sunday (April 19 is the closing performance) at the Sacramento Community Center Theatre, 1301 L Street. Tickets cost $22-$99. For more information, call (916) 557-1999 or (916) 808-5181, or visit www.broadwaysacramento.com or www.tickets.com.