“Once” is that rare blockbuster that is indeed rare: a charmer that boasts captivating music and a romance that crackles without the usual frills or fuss associated with Broadway darlings.
A winner of eight Tony Awards including best musical, “Once” revels in the power of music to heal. It also lets the songs by Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova speak for themselves. You might remember that pair as the star-crossed stars in the film version of “Once,” John Carney’s tiny 2006 movie that made waves and won a best song Oscar for “Falling Slowly.”
The stage show brings musicians together in a pub setting, a perfectly appointed semicircle space covered with subtle lighting and imperfect mirrors, which work to great and often haunting effect. Audience members who arrive early can get a close-up look at the set and buy drinks, then gather on the edges of the stage as members of the cast jam before the show gets underway.
The set never changes, but it is the magic of Bob Crowley’s design and John Tiffany’s direction that, with strategically placed chairs or tables, we follow characters from the pub to the bedroom to a music store with ease, even though the cast of 14 — all but the youngest doubling as musicians — rarely leave the stage.
That’s one more reminder that “Once” the musical is not “Once” the movie. The show that opened Tuesday at the Benedum Center mines more humor from characters, particularly the unnamed Girl, despite the fact that she continually insists, “Czechs are always serious.” She’s an immigrant to Dublin with a talent for the piano and recognizing a guy in need of some no-nonsense TLC.
Girl is played by Dani de Waal as a tenderhearted and feisty match for Guy (Stuart Ward), a heartbroken Dubliner. She is first drawn to his emotion-drenched music, arriving from offstage to confront the singer, her rapt expression caught in the large central mirror.
She’s hooked, but he’s just decided to put down his guitar for good. The love of his life has left for New York, and nobody’s listening — until this Girl from out of nowhere comes to his rescue.
Mr. Ward comes from the London production of “Once” to play Guy on the national tour. His awkward attempts to converse are no match for his anguished songs, which bring the Girl to his doorstep. She sits down at a piano and he picks up his guitar again, and suddenly the magic is back.
Guy and Girl could be just your average guy and girl who discover that they make beautiful music together, but life is complicated.
He fixes Hoover vacuums with his father to make ends meet and still has feelings for the girl who inspired his passionate tunes. She’s got a houseful of obligations, including her daughter Ivanka (Kolette Tetlow of Mt. Lebanon) and her strong-willed mother (accordion-playing Donna Garner). And then there’s the question of Ivanka’s father …
In Enda Walsh’s Tony-winning story, Girl gives Guy the gift of a renewed love for music and the ambition for it to be heard, and for just a few days, she gets to revel in a romantic dream.
The music that speaks of moonbeams and misery lifts them along. Those of us who braved the gathering storm in June to experience a Hansard set during the Three Rivers Arts Festival know the emotional edge the Frames singer brings to Celtic folk rock. It informs all the music here, from crowd-pleasing pub songs to “Falling Slowly,” which features the key lyric: “Take this sinking boat and point it home/We’ve still got time/Raise your hopeful voice/you have a choice ....”
And honestly, can you hear a heartfelt rendition of “and I love her so, I wouldn’t trade her for gold” and not fall for the singer or feel an affinity for the “her” in question? Good luck with that.
In support of Guy and Girl are a motley crew of fine actor-musicians, among them burly music shop owner Billy (Evan Harrington), who is smitten with Girl; and three young Czechs played by Claire Wellin, Matt DeAngelis and Alex Nee, who was the lead in the touring company of “American Idiot.”
In a clever device, when they are meant to be speaking their native language, a scroll projects the dialogue translated into Czech.
The incomparable Steven Hoggett, who also worked on “American Idiot,” is credited with “movement” rather than choreography, a distinction that speaks to the authenticity of the people as they move about their business or to the music. Small gestures may speak volumes. Watch for his fingerprint in the upcoming Broadway Series show “Peter and the Starcatcher.”
The transcendent music in “Once” doesn’t always deliver the jolt to the gut it might in concert, yet it’s always in keeping with character and situation. There also were times on opening night that I strained to catch words lost in accents and a couple of bushy beards, but that’s minor stuff from a powerful, poignant production that will leave you wanting more.
Now that I’ve seen “Once,” I can’t wait to see it twice.
Sharon Eberson: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1960. SEberson_pg.