“Once” Proves Broadway Magic Can Thrive on a Human Scale

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‘ONCE’

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

When: Through Oct. 27

Where: Oriental Theatre, 24 W. Randolph

Tickets: $27-$95

Info: (800) 775-2000; www.BroadwayInChicago.com

Run time: 2 hours and 15 minutes with one intermission

The common assumption about the way musicals operate is that the characters speak until their emotions can no longer be contained and they are compelled to burst into song.

“Once,” the beguiling musical based on the intensely personal, ruefully romantic 2006 movie that starred songwriter-musicians Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova, doesn’t entirely defy that essential principal. But it works an intriguing little trick on it, so, more often than not, the characters begin to sing because they are UNABLE to express all the emotions locked inside. It’s a subtle difference, but a crucial one.

The movie’s many fans were initially worried that turning this gossamer, untraditionally consummated love story — about a shy, depressed Dublin songwriter about to give up on music, and the extroverted, but no less heartbroken Czech immigrant and pianist who inspires him to take hold of his talent — would lose its way as a Broadway musical.

But the rapt attention of Wednesday night’s audience at the Oriental Theatre — where the national tour of the 2012 Tony Award-winning “Once” opened — was just the latest confirmation that Irish playwright Enda Walsh (drawing on John Carney’s spare, witty screenplay), director John Tiffany, and “movement director” Steven Hoggett (the latter two of “Black Watch” fame) not only have remained true to the spirit and scale of the film, but have crafted the closest thing possible these days to an acoustic show.

“Once” is a story about real people that seduces not through grandiosity but by holding fast to its human scale, and its humanity. Its uniquely imagined storytelling takes the form of a seamless blend of pared down dialogue, the continual presence of actor-musicians who actually create the music that drives their story, and the magically seamless movement of these performers that is not really dance, but something akin to heightened breathing. Designer Bob Crowley’s inspired pub setting, which draws us in, and serves as a working onstage bar for the audience both before the show and during intermission, never moves. Only a few tables and chairs, and a drum set and upright piano, find their way on and off stage via Hoggett’s cagey “choreography.”

A modern musical fairy tale, with a real-life (so not entirely happy) ending, “Once” begins as the Guy (Stuart Ward, strong-voiced and believable, if without Hansard’s potent charisma) and the Girl (Dani De Waal, whose energy and ease are wonderfully unaffected) meet in that pub. He is singing an angry love song, “Leave” (it’s about his girlfriend, who took off for New York), and she is captivated. She also is captivating in her offbeat, far-from-shy way. And, as it turns out, she can play Mendelssohn and write lyrics. He lives with his widowed dad and repairs Hoovers. She lives with her mother and young daughter (her husband has gone “home”). And her vacuum cleaner just happens to need fixing. It is the start of a beautiful artistic relationship, with gorgeous songs that are the stuff of an album. And of course that is what these two will be recording.

The ensemble, all splendid musicians, is of crucial importance at every turn, with Evan Harrington as the burly music shop owner with his own crush on the Girl; Raymond Bokhour as the Guy’s taciturn dad; Donna Garner as the Girl’s accordion-playing mom; Matt DeAngelis, Alex Nee and Claire Wellin as her flatmates; Benjamin Magnuson as a much-mocked banker, and John Steven Gardner, Ryan Link and Erica Swindell. None of them might have many Euros to spare, but together the are worth their price in “gold.”

Email: hweiss@suntimes.com

Twitter: @HedyWeissCritic

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