The Stage Version Of 'Once' Is Awkward But It's Saved By The Songs And Performances

Once, the musical, had its L.A. premiere this week at the Pantages for a limited four-week run. Based on the 2007 Irish film written and directed film by John Carney, the L.A. stage adaptation features Stuart Ward (Guy) and Dani De Waal (Girl) stepping into roles tailor-made for Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová of The Swell Season. The duo, who wrote the music and lyrics for the film, even won an Academy Award for the song, “Falling Slowly.”

So what’s the biggest difference between the movie and the live musical about struggling musicians in Dublin? About 45 minutes. (Rimshot inserted here.) In all seriousness, the stage version—which we caught at Thursday’s press night—basically sticks to the storyline of boy meets girl, boy and girl make music, and then separate; but it felt too long at points, though the story takes place over the course of only a few days. What saves the play is the musicianship of the talented ensemble, the intricate stage movement directed by Steven Hoggett, and, of course, the songs by Hansard and Irglová.

Get to the theater early because the evening starts before curtain time. Guests 21+ are invited to have a drink at the bar onstage (with the sparse main set switching between a pub, a music shop, a studio and various other Dublin venues). Members of the ensemble blend in and start playing Irish bar music as the audience members continue drinking and taking their seats.

Once things quiet down, we meet Ward’s “Guy,” a vacuum repair man in his father’s shop and a part-time busker with a broken heart. He’s on the brink of giving up music when he meets De Waal’s Girl, who not only has a broken Hoover (that doesn't suck), but also a love of music. She hears his talent and forces him to play and write music with her to win back his ex-girlfriend. During their week, they jam with colorful Dublin residents and meet each other’s families—and fall in love. While it’s the couple’s story, the play unnecessarily expands the roles (and total running time) of several supporting characters. (The bank manager gets his own song near the end of Act One and Girl’s flatmate Andrej has a minimal storyline about ambition/promotions and rejection.)

Those familiar with the film probably came to the Pantages to hear the music re-created and watch how Ward and de Waal would compare to their onscreen counterparts. They both fare pretty well, with de Waal taking the edge with a crystalline voice that stood out particularly in “If You Want Me.” Ward’s opening number of “Leave” didn’t quite hit the mark for us when he tried to channel Hansard’s primal screaming/growling—but we weren’t fans of the original, either. Ward redeemed himself with the solo song, “Say It to Me Now.”

What struck us as odd were the bits of comedy in the show, including a Josh Grobin reference, karate-chopping shop owner and de Waal and others yukking it up with the running joke, “'I’m always serious I'm Czech.” The forced humor takes away from the intensity and emotion palpable in the film. (Except for Ward, in comparison, was too serious. He seemed to spend most of his time onstage with hands in his pockets, staring off seriously into the distance or into Girl’s eyes.) It was a weird combination of drama with forced humor that set the show a little off balance.

Time and time again, the songs saved the day, and watching the ensemble, sing, dance AND play their instruments was amazing. The musical’s standout numbers are found in Act Two when the ensemble comes together for an energetic, “When Your Mind’s Made Up” and a quiet, haunting version of “Gold,” sung a capella. If you were a fan of Once, the film, the stage version is worth checking out—even if it’s just to hear the music of Hansard and Irglová played live.

Once plays the Pantages through Aug. 10. Tickets start at $25.