Instruments aren’t usually what people think of when they picture musicals. Good, bad, or otherwise, it’s mostly flashy costumes, soaring lyrics, and ostentatious dance numbers (think: Grease, Mamma Mia, West Side Story, or even Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark). Once is a very different kind of musical—its costumes are muted, its cast is small, and all of the actors on stage double as the orchestra.
This novel approach to the medium works in Once’s favor. It lends an intimacy to the performance—a show based on the book by Enda Walsh and the movie by John Carney—that other musicals simply can’t provide. And SpeakEasy’s take on the Broadway production works to its advantage. As the audience members find their seats, the secondary characters are sitting in a circle loudly playing Irish folk songs—and having a ball doing it. While clearly a gimmick, this is a great way to fill the time between the opening of the doors and the start of the show with more than a red curtain.
The show, directed by Paul Melone, begins organically. Set in a Dublin music store (hence all of the instruments laying around on set, including a grand piano), it seems the perfect place for a gathering like this. The musicians file off stage, walking past a guitarist standing alone off to one side of the stage. One of the players even stops to flip a coin into the new performer’s hat as he begins to sing. This character, named Guy (Nile Scott Hawver), finishes his song.
Upset with himself, he clearly aims to throw away his guitar and give up music altogether. Standing off to the side is Girl (Mackenzie Lesser-Roy). She convinces him not to give up music just yet and instead to sing a song with her. The two leads sing “Falling Slowly,” a beautiful piece that has earned its spot on the radio outside of the show. Over the course of the performance, the audience watches the development of the “will-they, won’t-they” between the two characters as they become closer and work on recording an album together.
Even at this early point in the play, it’s clear that the music and lyrics are spectacular. Good music shouldn’t be high praise for a musical, but Once deserves it. The cast’s voices are strong and clear, and the instrumentation is very engaging. The incorporation of the instruments is both seamless and eye-catching. During musical numbers, the secondary cast members grab instruments off the walls of the set and take up spots on the sides of the stage to play. The effect this produced was one as if the orchestra (an orchestra of mostly guitars, a violin, a cello, and an accordion) had donned costumes and begun playing on stage.
The high point of Once is Lesser-Roy. She is a beautiful singer with an expressive face and an engaging manner. She looks at ease on stage and in the show—as she should, considering that she played the same part in the national tour of Once. This is not to say that the other actors aren’t pulling their weight. Hawver turns in a lovely performance as Guy. His character goes through a roller coaster of emotion, but Hawver doesn’t look like he’s forcing it. The other members of the cast lend mostly humor, but they’re a refreshing addition in the slightly too-long show.
Once does have its missteps. Some of the “jokes,” or at least the lines played for laughs, are too forced. It’s a little jarring to feel the musical take a beat so as not to step on the laugh when no laugh comes. Once relies a bit too heavily on low-hanging fruit for its own good. And the show is well over two hours. The 15-minute intermission is welcome, but it also pads the length. Once mitigates its length a bit by frontloading the show in the first act, but this doesn’t stop the fatigue from setting in.
In spite of this, it’s clear why the show was so successful on Broadway, as a film, and even as a novel. For being a distinctly Irish story, it’s a wonder it took so long for a run in Boston.
Featured Image Courtesy of Maggie Hall Photography