Pop, hot and haute culture around Seattle

The highly-praised musical Once concluded its run at Seattle’s Paramount Theater, and we were quite interested in seeing it.

Neither of us saw the film, but had heard great reviews about it, and I wasn’t too displeased when its song ‘Falling Slowly’ won Best Song at the 2006 Academy Awards ceremony. The song sounded sweet and unpretentious, a  refreshing change from most film songs. We still haven’t seen it, its memory now filed away among our ever-growing list of ‘must-see’ movies.

As it turned out, the song was an appropriate snapshot for the show, as we found out this past weekend. The film, you see, was turned into a musical and rolled over its more ambitious (and pretentious) competitors at thr 2012 Tony Awards.

Despite all the raves the movie (and musical) received, I was still skeptical–healthily so. I wanted to see for myself if the show really could be as great as had been claimed.

The verdict is, unquestionably, resoundingly Yes. In fact, we must to throw our derby hat up in the air and say that this show is one of the best to have ever graced a stage. The story is organic, character-driven, one of the most human and honest musicals since ‘Fiddler on the Roof’. Not even ‘The Fantasticks’ is this warm and honest. It’s a love story, but a different kind of love story, taking you to a totally unexpected but surprisingly warm ending. (WARNING: SPOILER ALERT!).

The story is about a street musician/vacuum cleaner repairman in Dublin, known only as ‘Guy’. His girlfriend recently moved to New York and he’s in despair over it, opening the show with the heart-breaking ‘Leave’.  ‘Girl’, a Czech immigrant, hears him sing, and takes a liking to him. She wants the ‘Hoover fixer sucker guy’ to repair the, er, sucker on her vaccuum. In exchange, she’ll arrange the financing of an album for him. We also learn that Girl is a musician who’s allowed to come to a pub to play the piano there, whenever she wants.

Of course, warmly comic misunderstandings occur, and we keep waiting for them to realize that they’re in love, marry, and live happily ever after. That never happens: Girl is actually married, waiting for her husband to come from the Czech Republic, and she encourages him to call his ex-girlfriend and re-connect with her in the United States. Emboldened, he does. Girl, in fact, is the stronger character, understanding what she wants and approaching a man not because she needs a husband, but, simply as someone she wants to help.

So the story’s about a different kind of love–about two people sharing a common love and way of communicating through music.

The music is Irish-influenced, folksy tunes–but not all. The songs are by Glen Hansard and Marketa  Irglova (who both starred in the movie version) and, with their simple orchestrations and lyrics, cut right down to the core. They’re not tuneful or hummable, (neither is Sondheim) but they’re heartfelt.

The real challenge in converting this story to a musical was how to do that without damaging the delicacy of the story. Enda Walsh, the internationally known playwright who adapted this story, told an interviewer that his priority was to allow the story to direct the adaptation, keeping away from plot contrivances. He added a family life to the Girl and deepened some of the other characters, creating a strong context for the story. The result is a complex look at the driving force in the play.

John Tiffany’s direction is just as simple and unadorned as the story, and he sets up an interesting device: as the audience enters, people–guests–are milling around on the stage (set in a pub). Gradually the partiers dissipate to take their seats, the band sets up and, before we know it, the play has started and the house lights are coming down. This brings the audience directly into the action.

All the production values are top rate, especially Bob Crowley’s functional set: by just adding a piano, a desk, or rearranging something else on stage, he has a versatile design. My favorite technique deserves recognition, but I don’t know whose idea it was, not being familiar with the source material. Girl was from the Czech Republic and so was her family, so someone had the clever idea of turning translation on its head when the members of her household were talking among themselves. Instead of speaking Polish and having English supertitles translated, the characters spoke English and were translated into Polish supertitles. Cute, whimsical idea which kept the audience entertained.

And, of course, the actors. They had to deliver to make the story work, and deliver they did. Stuart Ward, as the Guy, actually played this role in London’s West End production. Dani De Waal, Girl, has a fairly new resume, but she, likewise, turns in a marvelous performance. Guy’s singing needs to be powerful and expressive. Girl needs to play the piano expertly, and they need the right complexity and chemistry. This duo brings all this into a believable story line. The supporting cast is equally strong, including a near scene-stealing performance by Evan Harrington as Billy, Girl’s suiter/protector/patron.

The show has closed, but don’t worry. The simple, minimalist show, with its character-driven universality, will be around along time. And even those who have seen it before will see it again. And again. And come away fulfilled.

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