John Carney wrote and directed his 2007 hit Irish musical film Once on half a shoestring budget, c. $150,000. Released worldwide, it had grossed over $20 million by early 2009. Critics praised it widely as “most charming” and “show-stopping”. The Chicago Tribune’s Michael Phillips gushed, “”It may well be the best music film of our generation”. Once’s primary love song, “Falling Slowly”, won the 2007 Academy Award for Best Original Song. Adapted for the stage in 2011 with book written by Enda Walsh and retaining most of the film’s songs, Once stormed Broadway in 2012, winning, eight Tony awards, including Best Musical, Best Actor, and Best Book. It’s currently on its first national US professional tour, featured at Dallas’ Winspear Opera House through December 28.
Perhaps the fact that I am several decades beyond late 20’s-early 30’s emo-like romantic angst prevents me from sharing in the widespread enthusiasm for this work. I saw the film at Angelika Film Center when it opened in Dallas, and it left me unimpressed. Its music droned on monotonously — tunes seemed to be little more than limp variations on a self-pitying theme. I found myself losing patience with both main characters, particularly the immature Guy. I came away thinking they both needed a hot bath, a clean change of clothing, a solid meal and a swift boot in the fanny to go do something productive. It clearly wasn’t “my” sort of film.
When the opportunity presented itself to see the national tour of the stage adaptation, I wondered if my response to it would improve. So, I went. My impression is incrementally more positive. I still find the two leads, played ably by Stuart Ward and Dani de Waal, eminently tiresome, uninteresting characters. I still find the music monotonous, if a tad more entertaining in a kind of pleasant Irish bar scene way, due to live on stage instrumentation. The main song, the one that won the Academy Award in 2007, still annoys me like fingernails on a blackboard.
The best part of this touring production is its staging. John Tiffany directs and Steven Hoggett choreographs movement across a wide-open Irish bar set lined with mirrors, providing a well-rounded visual effect. The ensemble of thirteen remains on stage throughout both acts, each actor playing instruments along stage right and left walls, moving freestanding set pieces or creating minimalist ‘atmosphere’ when not involved in a scene. It’s clever, fast-paced staging, cleanly envisioned. Every actor enlivens his or her part to a professional standard; singing voices and instrumentation (piano, guitar, mandolin, ukulele, banjo, cello, drums, accordion, harmonica, electric bass) are appropriate and harmonious. Seated as far back as I was in the Winspear (back wall center), I had difficulty understanding spoken dialogue, as did other audience members I spoke to at intermission while waiting in the always long ladies’ room queue. Several attendees announced they were leaving as soon as they used the facilities.
As a work of stage art Once seems ideally suited to a more intimate venue but that would not generate the cash flow needed to support a national tour. I suspect I might enjoy it more then. For now, for me, Once, twice: more than enough.
TICKETS: http://www.attpac.org/ 214-880-0202