A wonderful 'Once' in Tampa

First U.S. tour of acclaimed musical lives up to hype

mclear@bradenton.comFebruary 13, 2014 

Stuart Ward and Dani de Waal from the "Once" tour company. PUBLICITY PHOTO


"Once," the famously low-budget and low-key independent film, wouldn't seem to make natural fodder for a Broadway show in this era, an era of special effects, spectacular puppets and up-tempo songs.

And, in fact, the stage musical does feel compelled to sap the film's heart-rending love story of some of its subtlety. Some of the unconventional aspects of the story that made the film so charming have been diluted by the usually reliable playwright Enda Walsh, and, in some cases, they've been drowned.

But the stage version -- first national tour of which came to the Straz Center for the Performing Arts in Tampa Tuesday -- pays back what it has drained from the film by offering much that's new.

And, of course, it keeps all those gorgeous songs from the film, including the Oscar-winner "Falling Slowly" (which is not, in fact, among the better songs in the show).

The result is that the stage version of "Once," which earned all sorts of Tony Awards, is a beautiful thing -- quiet and involving, which draws its audience into its story in a fresh way.

It does that initially in a literal, physical way. The set is an Irish pub, and before the show starts the audience is invited on stage to have a pint while the cast begins to play Irish and Czech folk songs. Lights come down so gradually that it's hard to pinpoint the moment when the show begins. It lowers the barrier between audience and performers in a fresh and effective way.

The main characters are called only Guy and Girl. Guy is an Irish busker who's about to give up music and resign himself to his life as a vacuum cleaner repairman. Girl is a Czech immigrant who falls in love with his music. Guy falls in love with Girl. In the film, whether she's in love with him is wonderfully equivocal; in the stage version, it's made explicit.

The songs of Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova, who played Guy and Girl in the film, are given faithful and beautiful treatment by their charismatic stage counterparts, Stuart Ward and Dani de Waal. (De Waal's sister, Jeanna de Waal, played Glinda in the national tour of "Wicked" that came to the Straz Center.)

The cast is phenomenal, and many of the show's best moments come when the performers -- virtually all of whom remain onstage for the entire show -- quietly gradually join intimate songs with quiet, haunting harmonies and orchestrations

The staging, including Bob Crowley's mirror-filled set and John Tiffany's unusual blocking, plays with a lot of the rules of conventional theater, and breaks a lot of them altogether.

There are a couple of silly looking dance numbers, but they're brief and don't leave scars on the production.

In the end, it's an inspiring evening of theater and a stunning evening of music, and if it doesn't move your heart there's something wrong with your heart.

Details: Through Sunday, Feb. 16 in Morsani Hall at the Straz Center for the Performing Arts, 1010 N. MacInnes Place, Tampa. Curtain is 7:30 p.m. Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 2 and 7:30 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are $46.50-$92 plus service charge. Call 813-229-7827 or go to strazcenter.org.

Marty Clear, features writer/columnist, can be reached at 941-708-7919. Follow twitter.com/martinclear.

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