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Monday, May 21, 2018
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Review: Seeing powerful ‘Once’ only once may not be enough

You would be wise to attend the Tony-winning production of “Once” this week at the Straz Center, but be prepared.

Broadway musicals are supposed to follow a certain formula that includes elaborate costumes and sets, along with, of course, spectacular musical arrangements.

“Once” has none of that.

What it does have is a melancholy tale of doomed love woven around music from the heart, expressed through the spectacular talents of Stuart Ward and Dani de Waal.

Their character names — Guy and Girl — couldn’t be more basic. We soon realize the wisdom in that. If you strip away the trappings of the big-ticket musical, then nothing gets in the way of a story about powerful and painful emotion, sprinkled liberally with humor and occasionally salty tongues.

Now, we’re all familiar with “she done me wrong and broke my heart” songs. We just haven’t heard them delivered too often with Ward’s depth and passion. That is how the play begins, inside a Dublin pub, with Ward longingly and painfully singing “Leave,” the story of a love who left him and moved to New York.

That’s when we meet Girl.

She hears his song and instinctively knows it’s Guy’s destiny to share his magic with the world. The only problem is, he wants none of that. He tries to run.

Girl won’t let him.

When she notes Guy is leaving his beloved guitar behind as he starts to leave, he answers, “I’m not bothered.” She shoots back, “Maybe you should be bothered.”

Yes, de Waal, whose character is a Czech pianist, is precocious, disarming, adorable, but also persistent. It’s no wonder Guy falls hard for her, almost instantly. She falls too, but hides behind the motive of shoving him into a recording studio. Does he become a star? Do they live happily ever after?

We don’t know.

That’s just one of many unanswered questions in this Tony-award winning production, and that was a perfect approach. Life doesn’t always wrap up in a tidy package with a bright red bow.

On this particular journey, we learn that while attraction can be instantaneous and powerful, that’s not all. As Evan Harrington’s character Billy points out, “It’s a complicated business, this love.”

The complication, though, is what makes all of this work, right up to the finale — “Falling Slowly” — which won an Academy Award for best original song from the 2006 film version of this tale.

If you’re going, be sure to arrive early. Members of the audience can go on stage and hang out on the set while cast members provide a little pre-play music while everyone is getting settled.

And while the music will make you want to start downloading the sound track, the instruments did occasionally overwhelm the singers, making the lyrics hard to hear. That was unfortunate.

But as for everything else about this show, put it this way: After you see it, you might be tempted to go back. Once won’t be enough.

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