‘Once’ — and again — it’s pure magic

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“Once,” which has returned to Chicago for an all too brief engagement at the Cadillac Palace Theatre, weaves a spell around its audience in ways unlike those of any other Broadway musical. And while it is possible to objectively describe all the things that make this Tony Award-winning musical so emotionally engrossing, so intimate, so organic in its storytelling, so romantic and so incredibly “real,” in the end it might just be best to admit that the whole thing comes down to pure magic.

This is a show that makes you lean in and listen rather than sit up and applaud the razzle-dazzle. It’s a gem, and in many ways it triumphs because it defies all the usual expectations of Broadway. And while some might come to it with memories of the enchanting film that was its inspiration, those with no previous knowledge of the story are certain to be enchanted for the first time.


Highly recommended

When: Through June 7

Where: Cadillac Palace Theatre, 151 W. Randolph

Tickets: $30-$95

Info: BroadwayInChicago.com

Run time: 2 hours and 25 minutes, with one intermission

“Once” is a story of love, friendship, music and the power that comes with another person’s belief in your talent and your heart. It is very Irish and very Slavic, so it is at once self-knowingly despairing and blackly comic. And it is that tension between hope and utter pessimism that gives it such bite.

With a fierce and witty book by Enda Walsh (based on John Carney’s screenplay), and a gorgeous score by Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova — the pair who starred in the 2007 film — the show is set in a large Dublin pub (the work of that Irish genius, Bob Crowley, who also designed the costumes). The stage also serves as a pre-show bar where the audience can buy a drink and engage with the sensational musicians who are unlike those in the typical Broadway pit. The sound is a blend of contemporary Irish folk-rock and a bit of Balkan madness, and the virtuosic musicians — on guitar, ukelele, mandolin, banjo, cello, accordion, concertina and percussion — are all vivid characters who just happen to sing, dance and act as well.

The national touring production of “Once” | ©2015 Joan Marcus

The national touring production of “Once” | ©2015 Joan Marcus

The Guy (Alex Nee, who is alternating with Ryan Link), is a gifted young Irish songwriter whose girlfriend has left him and moved to New York, whose career has failed to take off, and who is living and working with his recently widowed dad, a vacuum cleaner repairman. The Girl (Dani de Waal), is a Czech immigrant to Dublin, who lives with her mother and young daughter, and whose husband left her and returned home. She also is a classically trained pianist full of mischievous energy and charm, and she won’t take no for an answer. She flirts, but has no interest in “hanky panky.”

The Girl is knocked out by a song she hears the Guy playing and quickly becomes his fan and collaborator. They fall in love, but not into bed. Their lives are changed in unexpected ways.

De Waal, who appeared here when “Once” visited Chicago in 2013, is irresistible as she captures her character’s crazy energy, sparkle, ambivalence and elusiveness. Nee is a formidable singer-guitarist who deftly embodies his character’s anger, loss and sense of defeat, and in many ways he seems younger than his newfound muse, which makes their relationship even more believable.

Swirling all around them are a crazy assortment of relatives, friends and neighbors: Billy (a wonderful, larger-than-life performance by Evan Harrington), who owns the music shop where he lets the Girl, on whom he also has a crush, play the piano she cannot afford to own; Baruska (Tina Stafford), the Girl’s droll, earthy mother; “Da” (Scott Waara), the Guy’s somewhat withdrawn but gentle dad; Svec (Matt DeAngelis), the wild and crazy punk drummer; Reza (Erica Swindell), the Girl’s sexy Czech friend; the Bank Manager (Benjamin Magnuson), a comical wannabe off-key singer; Andrej (Zander Meisner), the burger flipper with grander dreams; Eamon (John Steven Gardner), the music studio engineer, and the Ex-Girlfriend (Erica Spyres). The winning sense of community throughout is galvanized by the brilliant direction of John Tiffany and the work of Steven Hoggett, whose choreography is more a vibrating life force than dance.

Waara beautifully set the tone of the show with his opening rendering of the poetic Irish song, “On Raglan Road,” a tale of love that ends in pain but not in regret. And so it is with the heartbreaking but true tale of the Guy and Girl of “Once.” As I said, magic.

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