Back in 2007 I rented a movie called “Once,” a low-key independent film about a musician and the woman who turns his life around. It had received a great deal of acclaim and was indeed a pretty good movie.
The film went on to win an Academy Award for Best Original Song for “Falling Slowly,” but my personal favorite song — and moment in the film — is when our hero is in the studio laying down a recording of “When Your Mind’s Made Up.” I remember going back to that scene more than once before I returned the disc to Blockbuster.
In 2012 a stage version was brought to Broadway where it went on to win eight Tony Awards including Best Musical. The touring production made its way to St. Louis this week and is now playing at the Fox Theatre.
“Once” is a fresh, unique musical that in many respects outshines the original film.
Even before the show starts you find this will be an unusual evening of theater. The scenery is set up like an Irish pub and the audience are welcomed to come up on stage and look it over. Shortly before showtime the cast (all musicians) join the patrons milling around and begin to perform folk standards. The audience slowly returns to their seats while this is going on. It’s not clear when exactly the preshow ends and the musical proper begins.
“Once” is the simple story of singer/songwriter Guy (Stuart Ward), who is giving up on his dreams of being a musician in the wake of his girlfriend leaving Dublin for New York. Guy meets Girl (Dani de Waal), who encourages and inspires him to pick the guitar back up and give it another try.
And that’s really it. There are no multiple love stories or hidden agendas or mistaken identities to fill the space. Just a guy and a girl and their family and friends and the music that they make.
And what music. “Once” features a string of lovely songs, from the acerbic “Leave” that opens the show to the popular “Falling Slowly” to what was once again the standout for me — “When Your Mind’s Made Up.” Another highlight is the ensemble piece “Gold,” performed once as a showstopper to end Act One and later in a quieter a capella version.
The show features an outstanding cast, who not only must sing and act but also perform their own instruments. The small cast/orchestra rarely leave the stage, sitting off to the side in the moments they are not acting. The leads — Ward and De Waal — do terrific work, with Ward having an exceptionally powerful voice.
A final word should be said about the clever way the show is staged. The set is an Irish pub but the characters move from place to place simply by moving tables and chairs around and the power of imagination. It’s low-key and effective.
“Once” is a delightful evening of theater that proves you don’t have to be big and bombastic to deliver an impressive musical show.
“Once” runs through April 20 at the Fox Theatre. http://www.fabulousfox.com/