A ticket to "Once the Musical" includes a pass to the onstage Irish pub, where a jam session is going on as you enter. Before taking your seat, you are a part of the action.
Note: 30 minutes before the show, audience members may purchase drinks at the onstage pub while cast members play music. At intermission, the bar will be open again, but with no music.
It's a rather intimate way for a show to begin, but the winner of eight Tony Awards isn't your typical Broadway musical. This refreshing take on what a musical can be has enthralled critics and audiences in the same way the 2006 film "Once" proved to be the little film that could -- win the Audience Award at the Sundance Film Festival and win best foreign film at the Independent Spirit Awards.
When the movie transferred to Broadway, The New York Times critic Ben Brantley was overwhelmed. " 'Once the Musical' uses song and dance in a way I've never experienced in an American musical," he wrote. "When the violins begin to play -- and the accordion and the mandolin and the guitars and the cello -- the instruments swell into a collection of distinctive voices melded into a single, universal feeling. 'Once' massages that feeling until it hurts quite exquisitely."
This determinedly intimate musical emanates from universal themes. It tells the story of a Czech immigrant -- known as The Girl -- who makes a musical connection with The Guy, a native of the Irish town where she has landed.
"She has this love of music and sees that he's about to give up on his, and she wants to save him, really," said Dani de Waal, The Girl in the national tour that arrives at the Benedum Center Tuesday. "Without realizing it, she's yearning to save herself as well, because she's got her own issues. And they kind of do that for each other, over a very short space of time."
London native Ms. de Waal has played piano her whole life but never considered herself a performing musician and never was a member of a band until "Once the Musical" came along. Letting her vocals lead the way, she had played betrothed daughter Sophie in a West End production of "Mamma Mia!" and, this time last year, she was understudying multiple roles in the Broadway revival of "Picnic."
She was familiar with the movie and saw the Broadway version of "Once the Musical" before moving to New York. "It was the first show I asked my agent to get me in for. It was a long process; we went in for six months. ... So when I got it, it felt like a really long journey," she said.
As The Girl in "Once," she not only has to sing and play piano, but she has to blend seamlessly and exude a romantic chemistry with co-star Stuart Ward, the guitar-playing Guy who comes to the tour from the West End production.
After a few months on the road, from Florida to New Haven to Pittsburgh, "Once" feels more like home.
"It's quite amazing how right they get it with a company that works well together," Ms. de Waal said. "It really is a family. That vibe of traveling together and being a group of ragtag musicians, that's kind of what the show's about."
The music leans toward a combination of classical and folk, which works just fine for Ms. de Waal. Although she trained in musical theater, folk is more in her wheelhouse, she said. Tunes include Oscar winner "Falling Slowly" by singer-songwriters and movie co-stars Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova.
"The songs do all the work," Ms. de Waal said. "If you do what's there, the magic is done for you, especially with the orchestration of all the instruments. 'Falling Slowly,' you don't have to do anything -- in fact, you don't want to; you just want to show what's there."
Martin Lowe provided the orchestrations, and fellow Tony winner Enda Walsh adapted writer-director John Carney's screenplay, which stays true to the movie.
The stage version stands on its own and is about to celebrate a Broadway birthday; it has been at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre since opening March 18, 2012.
"I find it interesting when people come and see the show who haven't seen the film or don't know anything about it," Ms. de Waal said. "They are the ones who are most affected by it in a way, because they have no expectations. People are really moved because it's not an in-your-face show; you're drawn into it."
Ms. de Waal's character has a daughter, played by Pittsburgh's Kolette Tetlow, an 8-year-old who before hitting the road with her family sang in the Children's Festival Chorus of Pittsburgh and was seen and heard in commercials and voice-overs.
"It's quite amazing really, and her whole family is in tow. Her little brother and sister are just the cutest," Kolette's onstage mom said. "At the beginning I was unsure how it was going to be, but she's fantastic. I don't know how she keeps her concentration. I am nowhere near this person in my life, but here in the show I have this little daughter. So it's quite fun, actually."
Having a daughter is just one complication in the relationship between Girl and Guy. Like most things about "Once," the romance is anything but conventional.
"It's kind of a love story, but it's a real one, because everything in life isn't black and white," Ms. de Waal said. "It's not boy meets girl and they fall in love. We see people in our lives and they change us, whether things work out or not; it's that kind of realness about it that's what's special about it."
Sharon Eberson: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1960. Twitter: @SEberson_pg.