By Enda Walsh. Music and lyrics by Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová. Directed by Bill Millerd. An Arts Club Theatre production. At the Granville Island Stage on Wednesday, June 20. Continues until July 29
It’s a classic tale. Guy meets girl. Guy fixes girl’s vacuum. They sing a sweet duet.
So goes the opening of the musical Once. It’s a simple story of a Dublin busker’s star-crossed relationship with a Czech immigrant. Their lives have stagnated and, as they fall in love, they figure out how to unstick each other.
The musical is based on the 2007 movie of the same name. It was an Irish indie darling, shot for $180,000 in 17 days. The film became a critical and box-office success and won best original song at the Academy Awards.
In Once, almost all of the music is played by the ensemble. The 12-person cast capably wields a music shop’s worth of instruments, from the accordion to the cello. They also handle a plurality of Irish and Czech accents with ease.
The show is full of great songs, mostly written by the musicians who starred in the original film, Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová. There’s the very hummable “Falling Slowly”, which won the Oscar, as well as a beautiful a cappella rendition of “Gold”.
Hansard and Irglová are singer-songwriters, not composers, so these pop songs don’t drive the plot forward. In this way, Once suffers from a fate common to jukebox musicals. The action stops, the cast sings a great song, and then the plot picks up again.
Still, Once the musical retains much of the charm of Once the movie. It treads lightly on clichés, instead focusing on the contemporary Irish experience, from soap operas to fast-food restaurants.
This is best expressed in Kirsten McGhie’s costume designs. When we get the “meet cute” scene, the two leads’ outfits cleverly echo each other in their grey jackets, satchels, and boots. Later, one of the ensemble is wearing a mismatched tracksuit that’s a perfect reflection of his Czech roots and current home in Dublin. The T-shirt and hat from Eddie Rockets, a faux-merican diner franchise, were the pièce de résistance.
Adrian Glynn McMorran in the leading role of Guy has enormous shoes to fill. His performance will inevitably be compared to that of Hansard, who originated the role with his trademark Springsteen-ian vocals. Even forgoing that comparison, McMorran felt a little too dialled back on opening night. His opposite, Gili Roskies as Girl, brought a warmth to the stage and especially shone in her solo performances.
Bill Millerd directs this production, and it’s the final show he programmed as the Arts Club’s long-running artistic director. His extraordinary career has spanned 46 years at the helm of the city’s best-known theatre company, and his impact on the West Coast arts scene is immeasurable.
Come early to Once, because you can climb on-stage and order drinks from the bar. The cast arrives about 15 minutes before the start of the show and a brief céilí—a music session common in Irish pubs—breaks out.
In interviews, Hansard tells a story of a happenstance night when he traded songs with his hero, Van Morrison. When the sun rose, the famously taciturn Morrison praised Hansard, saying “Nice voice, nice songs, blah blah blah.” That’s a fair assessment of Once, too. Good songs well sung and a story as fleeting as the foam on your Guinness.