Arts theater review

Falling slowly in love with ‘Once’

The tender and heartbreaking musical features memorable musical performances

8978 nile solo  239
Nile Scott Hawver plays the Irish busker in 'Once.'
Maggie Hall Photography

Book by Enda Walsh
Music and lyrics by Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová
Directed by Paul Melone
Calderwood Pavilion at the Boston Center for Arts
March 1–30

Once is a tricky musical to mount on stage. Every production has to contend with the high bar left by its source material, the highly acclaimed 2007 indie film which charmed audiences with its plaintive music and low-budget cinematography. The film’s tale of romance between an Irish busker and a Czech immigrant is subtle and understated, posing another challenge to translate onto a stage without boring the audience. In both its film and stage incarnations, Once garnered accolades partly due to its quietness, which critics saw as a salve for the splashy excessiveness of musicals. Current productions, therefore, lose that alternative edge, since such aesthetics have become more mainstream and expected in a local theatre. Unfortunately, Speakeasy Stage’s production of Once doesn’t fully shrug off these issues, but the exceptional musical performances anchor the production and remind of the joys that only live theatre can provide.

My biggest gripe with this production is Enda Walsh’s book, which is unfortunately out of Speakeasy Stage’s control. In adapting Once from screen to stage, Walsh extended the story to two acts by tacking on an additional 30 minutes of dialogue, mainly in the form of quips. While most of the humor lands, the additional material is usually to the detriment of the main romance. The character of Girl now plays more into the Manic Pixie Dream Girl archetype; her motivations are reduced to curing Guy’s depression and loving him even though spending more time establishing her family situation would have led to a deeper characterization. The humor from the minor characters also distracts from the romance between the two leads, which already suffers because of the omission of the montage sequences in the film. This bloat leads to some awkwardness, such as pacing issues in the first act and the placement of the intermission.

Despite the efforts of the creative team, these issues hinder the development of a believable romance between Guy and Girl. Nile Scott Hawver as Guy struggles at the edges of his vocal range, which makes it difficult to believe why Mackenzie Lesser-Roy, who out-sings him, and other characters treat him as having a gifted voice. While the set cleverly evokes multiple locations at once, its static nature causes the slow parts of the musical drag, since there is only brick to look at. There are also some points which feel over-choreographed and distract from the narrative, such as the musical number “Say It to Me Now.”

What forms the heart of the show is the production’s fantastic musical performances. For a show about how music bonds communities together, music is also the unifying element of its narrative. The music ranges from the hauntingly romantic “Falling Slowly,” to the exuberant “When Your Mind’s Made Up,” and the memorably touching a cappella rendition of “Gold.” These performances are powerful moments of live theatre and make the show worthwhile to see. By no means is Once at Speakeasy Stage a bad production. It is emotionally moving in a way that makes you want to return to it again and again, but it does not fully escape the film’s reputation. If the film produces a continual tugging at the heartstrings, then this is a brief strumming that you wish would linger.