AT&T Performing Arts Center
Directed by John Tiffany
Scenic and Costume Design – Bob Crowley
Lighting Design – Natasha Katz
Sound Design – Clive Goodwin
Music Supervisor and Orchestrations – Martin Lowe
Movement – Steven Hoggett
Production Stage Manager – Daniel S. Rosokoff
CAST (for reviewed performance)
Girl – Dani de Waal
Svec – Matt DeAngelis
Eamon – John Steven Gardner
Baruska – Donna Garner
Billy – Evan Harrington
Emcee – Joshua Carter
Bank Manager – Benjamin Magnuson
Andrej – Alex Nee
Ex-Girlfriend – Erica Spyres
Reza – Erica Swindell
Ivanka – Kolette Tetlow
Da – Scott Waara
Guy – Stuart Ward
Photo Credit © Joan Marcus
Reviewed Performance 12/18/2014
Reviewed by Rachel Elizabeth Khoriander, Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN
Once is a word with many connotations. It can signal the start of a faerie tale. It can evoke nostalgia for times long gone. It can express a wistful longing for a solitary miraculous experience, the one that may never come again. And this is why it is an ideal title for the musical currently running at the Winspear Opera House.
In 2012, Once won eight Tony Awards, including Best Musical, Best Actor, and Best Book. This might make one assume it follows in the path of the traditional Broadway musical, filled with glitz and in your face song and dance, but nothing could be further from the truth. Once is about the dreams inherent in everyday life, and the understated nature of the musical’s artistry is a testament to its message. There is no spontaneous bursting into song. Rather, the songs are a natural part of the plot.
The story of a heartbroken Irish singer/songwriter (Guy) and the young Czech woman (Girl) who refuses to let him abandon his dreams, Once speaks of a reality often overlooked in faerie tales - that when soul mates meet is as important as whether they meet at all - and comments on the power of music and collaboration.
This commitment to collaboration extends to the audience that is immersed in the theatrical experience as opposed to remaining outside the fourth wall. Before the show, the actors, who are also the show’s musicians, perform in the Dublin pub that doubles as the set and invite audience members to join them for a drink from the on stage bar. The subtle transition from the preshow audience participation occurs seamlessly, so that one moment we are chatting amongst ourselves while enjoying a very fitting rendition of the Irish classic “On Raglan Road” and the next the spectacle dissolves and we become aware that Guy is onstage wailing an elegy to lost love while Girl, enchanted, is slowly gliding through the audience toward the stage. Only when Girl reaches the stage and speaks do the house lights blink out, and thus the tale begins.
Stuart Ward and Dani de Waal perform the lead roles of Guy and Girl. Ward is conflicted and soulful with a strong tenor voice and an uncanny ability to saturate his songs with raw emotion. His pain ripples through both his music and the audience, which lends poignancy to his performance but also results in less than crisp enunciation. De Waal brings earnestness to a character that could easily be played in an overtly saccharine manner. Her Girl is quirky but not goofy, and extremely optimistic, though not to the point of annoying naiveté. De Waal is a particularly strong singer; at times her voice is as delicate as the notes emanating from her piano, and at others expresses unyielding intensity, such as when she bares her soul in “The Hill.” While the bittersweet love story between Guy and Girl is central to the show’s storyline, colorful characters add plenty of humor and bring out the best in the lead actors.
Steve Waara plays Da, Guy’s grieving father, with a gentle humanity. His tentative inquiries concerning the state of his son’s broken heart are both touching and profound. Evan Harrington plays Billy, the goofy music shop owner, with heart and levity. He has an unmistakable talent for physical comedy and his protectiveness of Girl is both comic and heartwarming. Benjamin Magnuson as the Bank Manager who fronts cash so Guy can record his demo tape expresses his own brand of artistic longing. Magnuson convincingly maneuvers between the strait-laced façade of the banker and the wistful gawkiness of the dreamer within.
All of the actors playing the Czech characters have a discernible familial bond. Matt DeAngelis plays the excitable drummer, Svec, with a wacky sweetness and an unmistakable zest for life. DeAngelis’s nonchalant removal of his pants to muffle his drums provokes more than a giggle from the audience. Andrej, the aspiring restaurant manager, is played by Alex Nee with winning fragility. Nee’s Andrej is sensitive but confident, which makes a moment when his hopes get dashed particularly jarring for the audience. Erica Swindell brings a dash of pluck to the provocative violinist Reza. Her manipulations of the men are both seductive and amusing, and the passion with which she plays the violin hints at the fervor with which she lives life. As Baruska, Girl’s mother, Donna Garner is tough, a little sultry, and more than a little forthcoming. Similarly, John Steven Gardner as Eamon delivers his lines, both foreboding and complimentary, with forthrightness and brutal candor.
Joshua Carter as the Emcee, Erica Spyres as the Ex-Girlfriend, and Kolette Tetlow as Ivanka round out the cast and all demonstrate flexibility and charisma.
In several interviews, members of both the cast and the artistic team have discussed the immensely collaborative nature of the production. Directing, scenic design, lighting design and sound design are so elaborately intertwined that the boundaries can be difficult to trace, but all are impeccable and serve the overarching vision of the play.
The storybook-like atmosphere is enhanced by Scenic Designer Bob Crowley’s beguiling set which seems to shape shift when encountered from different perspectives. The low-ceilinged main room of the pub, juxtaposed against the soaring expanse of its rooftop, emphasizes the Celtic ambiance and frames the stage to create a pseudo-cinematic tableau. The pub room itself incorporates a weathered, red and yellow- checkered floor and glowing vintage Edison light bulbs reflecting and refracting against a semi-corroded wall of mirrors that heightens the fractured fragments of the story-telling. Heavy wooden doors are embedded with frosted panes of glass, and ghosted memories seem to shift at the edges of sight. The floor and mirrors cause the set to resemble not only a pub, but also a rehearsal space, and what is a rehearsal space if not a dreamland, a place to create, and a place to tell stories?
Lighting Designer Natasha Katz augments the ethereal feel of the play by incorporating a palette of blues, golds and rusts, and by using the lighting to mirror the feelings of the characters. They shine brightest at plot moments that change characters’ life trajectories, while quiet moments of connection are enveloped in a dreamy blue glow. One scene involving Guy and Girl on a hill overlooking the city of Dublin combines this glow with a three-dimensional view of the city at night, effectively created by lights embedded in the stage floor and the costumes of other characters. Further, lighting emphasizes changes in space, such as when Girl invites Guy to dinner with her family, by enclosing characters within squares of light that delineate the boundaries of a room.
Sound Designer Clive Goodwin uses the considerable talents of the cast to create a sound design devoid of pre-recorded sound cues. All sounds are actually performed by actors flanking the sides of the stage. In addition, Goodwin uses sound to place the audience in the perspective of characters. When Girl is listening to Guy’s demo tape through a pair of headphones, the music is loud and Guy’s voice is muffled. The music quiets and Guy’s voice becomes clear when Girl removes her headphones. Perhaps a less blatant but more pragmatic demonstration of sound mastery is that the vocal quality of every character is clear and audible, even though microphones appear to be non-existent.
Steven Hoggett’s movement design functions both artistically and technically, and is set to haunting music written by Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova, orchestrated by Martin Lowe. Besides drawing the audience’s eye to incorporate scene transitions into the plot and allow actors to smoothly move between locations, the distinctive and evocative stylized movements seem to be a physical manifestation of the longing expressed through the music. Motion is calculated but seems spontaneous, as when the musicians break into spirited jigs, dancing on tables and wielding their instruments in musical duels. Movement is also used to add color to the characters, illustrating the cultural differences between the Irish and the Czech and emphasizing the natural buffoonery inherent in some of the peripheral characters. Perhaps most interestingly, Hoggett uses movement to glimpse into the frustrations of others’ lives and represent the reaction of the local community to Guy’s music, which can be most clearly seen when Guy visits the bank manager to secure a loan. The movements of the actors in the background are minimalistic, yet indicative of a community’s shared story.
The beauty of the musical Once isn’t only in the story it tells about its characters; the beauty is also in the story set in motion in the minds of the audience members. It’s in the “What if?” desire that beats its wings in our hearts; the corporeal memory of that lost summer day, both ephemeral and eternal. That feeling left after the musical ends may or may not have the power to change, but it certainly has the power to remind us of who we once were.
ONCE THE MUSICAL
AT&T Performing Arts Center Broadway Series
Winspear Opera House
2403 Flora Street
Dallas, TX 75201
***Limited run through December 28th
Tuesday at 8:00 pm, Wednesday at 1:00 pm, Thursday, Dec. 25th at 7:30 pm, Friday-Saturday at 2:00 pm and 8:00 pm, and Sunday at 2:00 pm and 7:30 pm
Ticket prices range from $30.00 to $120.00, depending on seating and performance date.
For information and to purchase tickets, visit www.attpac.org/on-sale/2014/once, call ATTPAC’s box office at 214-880-0202 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. You may also purchase tickets in person at the ATTPAC Information Center, 2353 Flora Street, just past Winspear Opera House (Mon. 10am-6pm, Tues.-Sat. 10am-9pm, and Sun. 10am-6pm).