ORLANDO — Broadway musicals have a tendency, not to mention a great eagerness, to demonstrate that they can be big, splashy, and filled with extravagant special effects – perhaps no more so than when adapting a movie to the stage. Minus all the cinematic tricks at a film director’s disposal, the stage musical needs to rely a bit more on the audience’s imagination, although there’s no question stage directors like as many visual and sound effects as possible, and as many elaborate sets as can be hoisted onstage.
At the Bob Carr Performing Arts Centre in downtown Orlando, this trend has given us the likes of “Mary Poppins” with statues that come to life in a park, “Priscilla Queen Of The Dessert” with a bus driven across the Australian desert, and even “Wicked” with its variation on “The Wizard of Oz.” If fantasy is all about the imagination, stage productions seem quite determined to transport us to genuinely magical places once the lights go down.
Watching a number of patrons get up after the first half hour or so of the Broadway musical “Once”, and then never return to their seats, I had to wonder at times if we’re a bit spoiled by the extravagance of those fantasy musicals with the giant orchestra right below the stage? “Once” is, like those other productions, an adaptation of a movie, this time a 2006 film, which became a Broadway musical in 2012 and would go on to win at the Tony Awards for Best Musical. And yet it feels so different from the much splashier Broadway hits that have come to Orlando.
Hopelessly low-key, perhaps, for the high brow set?
The set is very minimalist, consisting of mainly a bar in the center stage, and there is no orchestra this time – the cast doubles as the musicians. The story is simple — perhaps deceptively so — and sometimes rather slowly paced. The two leads, Guy and Girl, often speak softly to one another, in hushed tones. The plot, about following your dreams when that seems futile, will be familiar to anyone who is aware of the 1937 movie “A Star Is Born” with Janet Gaynor. Watching the folks who paid good money to see “Once” get up and exit made me wonder if some people have a different concept of what a “Broadway” musical should be, and find “Once” too ordinary and even plodding to stick with?
If so, there are rewards that this musical provides that they’re missing.
Set in Dublin, the story involves a Czech woman, Girl, who walks into a tavern to discover a young man, Guy, singing a beautiful love song when he think he’s alone. He puts the guitar back in the case and is about to leave when she stops him, and asks him if he wrote that heartfelt ballad, and why. Guy admits he composed it for a girlfriend that left him to move to New York City, and he is fed up with music and performing; he has never gotten anywhere with it, and besides, he now repairs vacuum cleaners for a living.
But the Girl insists he has talent and deserves to be heard, and when his sheet music falls out of his coat pocket, she picks it up and rushes to a nearby piano to start playing it. She even convinces a reluctant Guy to perform the song, “Falling Slowly,” with her. She begins rehearsing songs with Guy, and even arranges a meeting with a local banker to see if he will loan Guy the money needed to take his music to audiences in New York.
But at the same time, as Guy starts falling for her, she resists his advances. Why?
There are complications, as it turns out: the Girl has a daughter and lives with her mother, and she is separated from her husband. Her home life is so mixed up that the Girl would rather just focus on the Guy’s artistic career and not, as she calls it, “hanky panky.” The Guy is not so picky.
Among the many pleasures of “Once” are some very good, stirring songs, and a particularly tender and romantic scene in the second act when Guy and Girl walk to a hill overlooking the city, and the Girl says something to Guy in Czech – a romantic admission, perhaps? But when he asks her to translate what she said, the Girl merely replies, “It looks like rain.” (The theater uses subtitles to translate anything said in Czech.)
Although there are 19 people in the cast (with a particularly funny routine by Benjamin Magnuson as the bank manager who knows how to play a guitar but has a less than appealing singing voice), this is mainly a two-character show. Dani de Waal is quite good as the perky, headstrong Girl who demonstrates a good amount of drive and fortitude when it comes to pushing Guy into his career — one that seems like a silly, whimsical childish fantasy. But she believes in him, that’s for sure, though you may wonder why she is just as determined to fight her own feelings for him. And Stuart Ward positively shines as Guy, a man ready to throw it all away out of frustration and disappointment, only to find he’s not quite ready for someone who truly believes in him.
“Once” has neither the elaborate plotting, eye-popping stage designs or grand ambitions of other movies-to-stage adaptations that have graced Broadway and then gone on tour, but it’s anything but dull. Two charming and funny actors go a long way toward making you cheer on their willingness to put aside fears about how high a mountain it seems like they’re about to climb – in terms of career and artistic ambition, anyway; the same logic is not always applied to trusting your romantic and emotional instincts.
Perhaps in some ways, the show notes, it’s easier to brave the unknown when it comes to a career path we’ve always nursed dreams for, then to open oneself up to falling hopelessly in love.
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