“Once” Again, With Feeling

In its nearly 100 years of existence, the Shubert has presented the works of many major Irish theater artists, from Synge to Wilde to Behan to the Abbey Theatre company. Just as importantly, the Shubert has served as a concert hall for appearances by The Waterboys, Cherish the Ladies and other cool Irish music groups.

The national tour of the Broadway musical Once, now at the Shubert through Sunday, brings us the best of both worlds. It serves the needs of the area’s bustling Irish community and far beyond.

Let’s get one thing straight: Once is a beautifully constructed piece of live musical theater. It flows gloriously from spoken scenes to musical confessions. It explodes with comedy and also causes tears to flow.

There’s been some backlash from “traditional” Broadway fans who argue that Once was somehow undeserving of its eight Tony awards (including Best Musical, Best Direction, Best Book and Best Orchestration, all relevant to this first national tour) because they feel its Irish score is “shrill” and “yammering” compared to, say, the melodies of Cole Porter.

It appeared that most of the opening night crowd at the Shubert Wednesday, where Once is ensconced for the most performances of any Shubert musical booking this season, would beg to differ. New Haven, with its love of live music and luck of the Irish, gets Once, and Once, with its edgy theatricality and communal consciousness, gets New Haven.

You could easily argue, in fact, that Once is the essence of what musical theater meant when the art form was still being invented a century or so ago:  popular songs connected by a nice theatrical story, with a bit of dancing if you can fit it in.

Once delivers those basic needs with an organic, scaled-down urgency and an upbeat energy. The actors and the musicians are the same people, bursting into song while grabbing the nearest guitar, accordion, mandolin, banjo or baritone ukulele. There are also drums—the professional kind plus some wooden boxes—and fiddles and an electric bass and an ocarina and a cello that’s hoisted aloft with one hand as if it’s been mistaken for a violin.

The music of Once arrives before the story of it does. The cast engages in a massive jam session, blowing through bar-band standards such as “The Leaving of Liverpool” on the show’s bar-like set while the audience is still filing in to the theater; a portion of the crowd is even invited up onto the stage as if they were having a night out in an Irish pub and the cast was the house band.

But wait! Those who’ve seen the John Carney movie this musical’s based on are asking. Isn’t the story a serious downer? Man who’s lost girl finds a different girl and never really gets her? Money woes and culture clashes in present-day Dublin? Bluesy self-loathing songs? Well, not so much this time around. Once the musical goes out of its way to entertain. It builds up some supporting characters and makes them all comic relief. It lightens a lot of the dialogue between the stars (known only as “Guy” and “Girl” so that it’s more amusing and wistful than sad and sullen. And for every bleak out-of-love songs, there’s a high-kicking romp.

“Falling Slowly,” the Oscar-winning signature tune of both the Once movie and musical, comes up early in the first act. Its melody gets strummed a few times in the background, becoming a sustaining theme. Then it gets a big-deal reprise. But there are over a dozen other musical numbers in case you don’t happen to be a big “Falling” fan. Most are familiar from the film, and all are composed by Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova, who played Guy and Girl in the movie. The second-act showstopper is “When Your Mind’s Made Up,” the song which Guy, Girl, and a band they’ve cobbled together from roommates and acquaintances unleash at their all-important first recording session. Two scenes later, the same cast that just did that righteous rave-up goes preternaturally calm for a gorgeous, choir-like a cappella number, “Gold.”

Once the musical is fundamentally different than Once the movie, and that’s due not just to how viscerally we respond to the music when it’s played live but to how grounded and articulate it is as a stage play. Once has none of the special-effects shortcuts of so many other film-to-stage endeavors. It was adapted for the stage by the prolific playwright Enda Walsh, who has a firm grasp of both how to structure a live drama with a minimum of sets and props and an admirable dependence on good actors’ bodies and voices.

Walsh’s work is not new to New Haven: his play The Small Things was done at the Yale Cabaret last year. He’s known for writing (yet not overwriting) charged monologues. He’s taken material from Carney’s movie and made it work in a new and fresh way here.

The opening night of Once at the Shubert featured two substitutions in the usual cast: Stephen McIntyre went on instead of Raymond Bokhour as Da (Guy’s father) and Tina Stafford performed the role of Baruska (Girl’s Mother). The two actors were smoothly incorporated into the show, thanks in large part to the all-for-all ensemble feel which makes Once such a singular sensation. Like the Broadway revival of Chicago and like so many shows which want to push an ensemble environment, Once’s cast is onstage for the entire show. When they’re not needed as actors, they sit on the sidelines and watch the others act. Or they pick up an instrument and play. For some of the tour’s cast, this is a natural way of putting on a show: two of them were in the New York Public Theater revival of Hair, and in the tour of that show which played the Shubert in 2010.

The ensemble concept isn’t just about economy and intimacy. It’s about community. Once isn’t just about a man and woman who meet and maybe fall in love. It’s about Dublin, and family, and music in the air. The leading actors don’t have to carry the entire drama on their shoulders. There’s support from all sides. That said, Stuart Ward (an accomplished singer/guitarist who in real life plays rhythm guitar and sings background vocals for British pop icon Cliff Richard) and Dani deWaal (an engaging pianist who played Sophie in the long-running London production of Mamma Mia in 2011) create genuine chemistry as Guy and Girl. In short, they make beautiful music together.

Once is ideal for the Shubert, which is on a roll in attracting first national tours of major Broadway shows. The Bushnell, which traditionally gets first dibs on first national tours due to its much larger auditorium, isn’t getting Once until over a year from now. And those who were at the Shubert last night couldn’t help noticing the giant posters announcing that the New Haven landmark had nabbed the first stop on the first national tour of the musical Matilda for the spring of 2015.

Once fits the Shubert perfectly—the brick wall backdrop which accents the show’s clever mirror-studded pub-room scenic design mimics the Shubert’s actual brick backstage walls. It’s just the right place for the show right now. In a few years, when the performance rights trickle down to amateur groups, you’ll probably see Once everywhere—in real pubs, in school theaters, in churches, outdoors. Once, it seems, is never enough.

Once, the musical, plays at the Shubert (247 College St.) through Sunday, March 2. Remaining performances are Thursday at 7:30 p.m., Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 2 & 8 p.m. and Sunday at 1 & 6:30 p.m. Tickets are $15-$125.

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