Review: ‘Once’ enchants and surprises

Lovely, simply lovely.

And I mean that in a “wow” kind of way.

I really didn’t know what to expect from “Once.” I knew it won awards. I knew it was based on a movie.

But I went into the May 26 performance at The Bushnell in Hartford willfully (and maybe, woefully) uninformed. I figured that way I would view the show without the annoying influence of “buzz.”

The show begins in an odd manner… albeit one that was delightful. When you arrive at the theater, you’re invited to stand on the stage if you wish. The set is a pub and you’re invited to grab a pint of beer on stage if you wish. Then members of the cast, armed with musical instruments, slip onto the stage and begin to perform as the audience members surround them on stage.

After awhile, and as curtain time arrives, the audience is gently ushered away as the stage is returned to the performers. And except for a taped reminder as to where the fire exits are, the show begins before the audience even is aware that the performance is underway.

It was unlike anything I’ve ever seen. But it was creative and helped set the spontaneous feel for the whole evening.

For those unfamiliar with “Once,” it’s a boy meets girl (or in this case “Guy” meets “Girl”) story, set in Dublin, in the world of folk musicians and Czech immigants.

Music plays a significant role in the story. But ultimately, “Once” is about love.

The success of this performance lay at the feet of Stuart Ward (Guy) and Dani de Waal (Girl).

They are the young lovers, who may or may not connect as the story progresses.

As a couple on stage, there was a definite emotional connection between Ward and de Waal. The sexual tension, the affection, banter of a couple just meeting, and those awkward first moments, were spot on. For me, and I’m sure for others, it reminded me of those moments when you meet someone for the first time and wonder—is she (or he) the one.

The way the two actors play off each other adds dimension to what could have been a very simple story. As Ward and de Waal carry themselves through the action, we sense there is more going on in their head than the words alone are telling us.

As “Once” was written, it would have been easy for the characters Girl and Guy to fall into stereotypes.

Girl could be a mouthpiece for clever one liners and bon mots from the book by Edna Walsh.

And Guy could have been just another depressed, frustrated artist in a long line of depressed, frustrated artists found on stage and on screen.

But the performances of Ward and DeWaal manage to create complicated individuals—characters that the audience cares about and roots for.

The show is a musical but not a musical in the typical Broadway sense.

There are no big ballads. There are no rousing Broadway-style anthems

The music composed by Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova is understated but hardly underwritten. The music is a quiet storm that slips its passion between your ears rather than pounding you into emotions with heavy orchestrations.

The music also is organically introduced into the show. The actors perform their own instruments on stage and the music arises as part of the action on stage, not because dramatic convention says, “Put a song here.”

Besides Ward and de Waal, the show is blessed by wonderful character performances from the entire cast. There are moments, however, that standout. Evan Harrington, as the shop owner Billy, is full of humor. His bungling karate kicks and rant against “bankers” are some of the funniest moments of the evening. Matt DeAngelis, as a Czech immigrant/ death metal drummer, also has you rolling in the aisles with his broad physical humor. And Scott Waar, as the father of Guy, gives an understated performance where each of his words tells a catalogue of stories.

I went into “Once” not knowing what to expect. What I found was probably one of the few shows where my attention never wandered from the action on stage.

I was completely enchanted.

I give “Once” four out of four stars.

Performances continue through Sunday. Tonight and Thursday, show time is 7:30 p.m.; Friday at 8 p.m.; Saturday at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m.; and Sunday at 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m.

Ticket prices start at $21. Tickets are available online at www.bushnell.org, by phone at 860-987-5900, or at The Bushnell box office, 166 Capitol Avenue, Hartford.

 

Stuart Ward and Dani de Waal from 'Once,' now playing at The Bushnell.

Stuart Ward and Dani de Waal from ‘Once,’ now playing at The Bushnell.

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