When musical theater is special it can be close to magical. Such is the case with “Once,” which is now playing at the Fox Theatre through April 20.
I’ve often bemoaned musicals based on movies as being creative black holes; but “Once,” which is based on a beloved 2007 movie that won an Academy Award for best song, bucks that trend with a show that is intimate, bittersweet, and a musical revelation.
The plot is slight and focuses on an Irish street performer billed simply as Guy (Stuart Ward) who writes powerful music, but is about to give it all up thanks to a broken heart and under-appreciation.
That is until he meets Girl, (Dani de Waal) a Czech immigrant who sees Guy’s musical talent and encourages him to stick with it. They make music together and while a romance blossoms it doesn’t play out as you might expect.
While many of the songs come from an Irish folk tradition, what sets “Once” apart is that all of the musical talent is right up on the stage. The cast is a skilled musical troupe who plays their own instruments and remains onstage throughout, with each cast member stepping forward to play his or her part as the story requires.
The stage is dressed in lots of brass and mirrors to resemble a typical Dublin pub and to enhance the cozy theater-going experience audience members were allowed to wander onstage and purchase a drink from behind the bar (beer, wine, and water only) before the beginning of the show and during intermission.
Before the show officially began members of the cast wandered through the crowd onstage and gathered in the center with their instruments and began to warm up the audience with some rousing Irish folk songs.
This informal vibe made you almost feel like you had wandered in off the street to discover an incredible band you’d never heard of was playing at your favorite bar. It almost wasn’t clear that the show had started until the audience members were quietly ushered back to their seats and the house lights began to dim mid-song.
Aside from Ward and de Wall, who play the guitar and piano respectively, the rest of the cast impressively showed off both their musical and acting talent.
Matt DeAngelis, Alex Nee, and Claire Wellin, who all portrayed Girl’s Czech roommates shined on drums, guitar, and violin. Raymond Bokhour played Guy’s father and a mean mandolin. Donna Garner played Girl’s mother and twirled around the stage playing the accordion and concertina. Evan Harrington took on the comic relief role as Billy, a music store owner with an unrequited crush on Girl, and also chipped in with some guitar and ukulele work. Benjamin Magnusun rocked the cello while doubling as a vocally challenged bank manager.
Rounding out the cast/band were John Steven Gardner, Ryan Link, and Erica Swindell who helped out with supporting roles and a wide variety of instruments.
While there is no doubt that the music is what makes “Once” a magical experience, the central romance leaves a lasting impression as well. Guy and Girl’s unconventional fling has a lot of appeal all on its own, but I would be wrong to discount Ward and de Waal’s chemistry and effort to make you feel emotionally invested in their story.
If you’re not one who normally takes a chance on a new musical, make an exception for “Once” as it is a show that is about as must-see as it gets.
“Once” is now playing at the Fox Theatre through April 20. For tickets call 314-534-1111 or go to metrotix.com.