The movie “Once,” that keenly wistful and gorgeously emotive low-budget 2007 hit about a Dublin street musician whose romantic path crosses briefly with a Czech immigrant, didn’t scream out to be a Broadway musical. I cringe at the thought of what a theatrical adaptation could have been in the wrong hands: a big, brash, overproduced ear-sore that overwhelmed the delicate material. (A “Falling Slowly” chorus line, perhaps?)
Many thanks, then, that “Once” didn’t fall to such excesses when it made its transition to the stage, a journey that culminated in a whopping eight Tony awards in 2012, including best musical. It transformed into a spry, agile little slice of theater that delivers the tenderness and – most important – the immersive, wrenching music of the film.
Yet I’m going to register a minority viewpoint on this one: It’s a nice show, but after seeing the national tour, which continues through Wednesday at the Saroyan Theatre, I wasn’t blown away.
There’s something about the stage version that shifts us away from what felt like the film’s documentary revelations into the two main characters, known only as Guy (Sam Cieri) and Girl (Mackenzie Lesser-Roy). The film felt real even if we knew the story was fiction, with the audience falling, slowly, into the melancholy romantic spell. (It helped when the story emerged of the film’s stars, Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová, becoming a real-life couple.)
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That realism shifts slightly in the play into more of a fantasy, enhanced by director John Carney’s deft theatrical techniques. Those techniques are beautifully done, from dreamy choreographic highlights and intermezzos between scenes to the actors doubling as the orchestra, playing their instruments on stage throughout. But this theatricality still pushes the play into more universal territory. The characters emerge more as archetypes rather than as joltingly specific individuals, their edges rounded and fierce chemistry softened. Instead, we get more of a general “Take a chance on love!” sentimental message.
Perhaps, too, I just wasn’t taken with the leading actors in this production. Lesser-Roy’s Girl is appealing and strong (and I liked her vocals quite a bit), but her crisp persona didn’t give way to more believable vulnerable moments. Cieri, as Guy, gave a generic performance, and his vocals didn’t reach the heights of technique nor anguish needed. Together, their romantic chemistry was a warm glow, but for this show it needs to burn supernova bright.
The ensemble cast fares better. Among the highlights: Jenn Chandler offers a nuanced and amusing performance as the Bank Manager (while also delivering a nicely played cello), and John Hays gives a rousing turn as Billy, who battles with her over the evils of capitalism.
There also are some beautifully staged moments in the show, in particular the first-act finale, “Gold,” which has the musicians playing (and swaying) to and fro on Bob Crowley’s atmospheric unit set (a Dublin pub).
If you’re a fan of the music in the film in general, the actors as musicians deliver a very nice sound. One thing the show does well is give an ensemble choral power to some of the songs, offering a more rousing, anthem-like quality.
A final note: That’s an actual bar up there on stage before the show and during intermission. If you’ve always pined for a beer on the stage of the Saroyan, now’s your chance.
- 7:30 p.m. Wednesday
- Saroyan Theatre, 700 M St.