Once. Once there was a heartbroken Irish guy so sad and angry that he was going to give up playing guitar and singing. And once there was a funny but “serious” Czech girl who would change his life forever.
The eight-time Tony Award winning musical Once opened this week at The Bushnell Performing Arts Center in Hartford and is as modern a musical as they come. But it’s different than musicals that rely on songs to propel the plot. It’s more of a play that centers around music featuring singer-songwriter Stuart Ward as the lead, identified as a guitarist named Guy, pianist Dani de Waal as the principal female character, Girl and a cast of professional musicians.
It’s no wonder Once won Best Musical at the Tony Awards back in 2012 because this show is unique and truly special. Before the show officially started, limited audience members was invited up onto the Bushnell stage to listen to the majority of the cast jam and play a pre-show concert in the set pub. You really felt like you were in the heart of Ireland at a cozy bar.
The lights aren’t dimmed right away to signify a clear start to the show and the cast rolled right into the beginning of the play off their mini jam session once the audience members left the stage, so it was a little confusing. But in a way, the show had started before it officially began, getting you into the world of the musical from the moment you walk in the theater. The audience members become method actors without realizing it.
Ward opens the story playing an original song as Guy in an Irish pub and breaks down as he thinks about his ex-girlfriend, slamming down his guitar to leave, which prompts Girl to approach the teary-eyed Dubliner and encourage him to keep playing. From the beginning, her humor charms audiences and de Waal is clever with her delivery, creating a stark, ironic contrast to Ward’s emotional state as Guy. The juxtaposition of sad and funny works well. She does comedy really well.
The show itself has a lot of emotion as Guy and Girl go on to write music together the speaks to the heart and soul of humanity and relationships. The show had me crying by the end because I connected to the music, which draws out your emotions. That never happens to me and the only other show it did was Wicked when it played at the Bushnell on its national tour.
Ward is really believable as his character because he actually is a singer-songwriter. The actor, who is actually from Liverpool, England, signs autographs and sells his CD of original music in the lobby after the show featuring him on lead guitar and vocals, and cast members Waal on piano and back-up vocals, Erica Swindell (Reza) on violin, Benjamin Magnuson (Bank Manager, cello, guitar) on cello, as well as Raymond Bokhour on mandolin, Gary Craig on drums and percussion, George Koller on bass and Claire Wellin (violin and backing vocals). Guy is genuine and honest and you’ll fall in love with him.
While Girl does fall for him deep down, she feels she has responsibilities, as she has a daughter and husband, so the two never get together in the lifespan of the show, but you really want them to end up together.
The stage has a capacity limit for the amount of people allowed on it, but you’ll have a chance to go on stage at intermission and buy beer or wine from the set pub, inviting the audience into the story. If standing on the Bushnell stage isn’t striking enough, getting the opportunity to see the set up close is a once in a lifetime opportunity. Mirrors adorn every wall, showing you the characters from every angle in the reflections.
During the show, the production employs a black box minimalistic set technique. The bar is the main set piece that never leaves and furniture is brought on stage and rearranged to connote a change in scenery or location.
There was no need for an orchestra because the actors served that role and it was refreshing to have true musicians acting as opposed to actors pretending to be musicians. John Steven Gardner (Eamon), who plays piano, guitar, percussion, melodica and harmonica, is the music captain.
Swindell (Reza) dances with dynamic stomps as she plays the violin and serves as the show’s dance captain. The show features a lot of modern and interpretive dance that is truly artful.
Evan Harrington, who plays guitar, percussion and ukulele in the show, will make you laugh as Billy, the music shop owner. He’s a big guy, but he puts a lot of physicality (and karate) into the role for comedic effect. The clash between his character and the bank manager (Magnuson) is a sidebar relationship in the show that gives the storyline of Guy and Girl some color.
A very poignant moment in the show was when Girl tells Guy she loves him in Czech, which you see in translated subtitles projected on the set. But when he asks her what it means, she says it means it’s about to rain. Guy’s parting gesture at the end does lead you to believe they’re not done with each other yet.
And I’m not done with this musical either. I’ve seen it once. And it left me wanting to see it again.
It runs at the Bushnell through Sunday. Performances are Saturday, May 30 at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. and Sunday, May 31 at 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. For more information, visit bushnell.org/once or the musical’s website, oncemusical.com.