Sunday, October 20, 2013

'Once' Charms Repeatedly, but Greater Intimacy Could Result in Dublin My Pleasure -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

a musical based on the film
Music & lyrics by Glen Hansard & Markéta Irglová
Oriental Theater, Chicago
Thru October 27

2007's Once is a delightful little movie about a downtrodden Dublin street musician whose life is changed by a chance encounter with a young Czech woman who also happens to be a skilled pianist.

By "little movie," I don't so much mean its 86-minute runtime, or the small, largely unknown cast (though star Glen Hansard had fronted an Irish band called The Frames).

Unlike the bombastic blockbusters that rattle cineplexes and one's senses, Once is an intimate, tender and touching film, with a lovely soundtrack featuring mostly acoustic songs by Hansard and his co-star Markéta Irglová.

Though the film seemed a wholly satisfying form in which to tell its story, I understand the compunction to turn it into a stage musical, albeit a somewhat unconventional one at that.

And on Broadway, Once has likely made a bigger splash, proportionately, than the movie did.

It collected 8 Tony Awards in 2012--including Best Musical--and, per Playbill's weekly grosses, it seems to still be playing to mostly full houses a year and a half into its run.

In New York, Once plays at the 1,059-seat Jacobs Theater. Now on its first National Tour, in Chicago--as part of my Broadway in Chicago series--it's at the wondrous but voluminous Oriental Theater, with a capacity more than twice the show's Broadway home.

Now I love the Oriental, which I recently cited as my favorite interior space in Chicago. And my "Balcony Club" Broadway in Chicago subscription may well be the city's best live entertainment bargain. I'm usually none too chagrined about being in the nosebleeds, especially as it affords me the opportunity to see more shows.

But even in being about 10 rows closer than my normal seat--due to an undersold balcony--I couldn't help feel that I wasn't gleaning the pathos from Once that I might in the Orchestra section, or even more so, within a much more intimate venue.

For while it actually has more choreography than one might expect, Once doesn't feature a bunch of peppy showtunes complete with chorus girls. 

Rather it utilizes Hansard & Irglová's guitar and/or piano ballads, delivered smartly in Chicago by Stuart Ward and Dani de Waal. 

I had no problem with the performers, performances, storyline or music, all of which I rather liked.

"Falling Slowly," "If You Want Me" and "When Your Mind's Made Up," among others, are terrific tunes, and were a pleasure to hear.

But perhaps my hearing, and/or the preponderant Irish brogue, was the problem, for from my upper balcony perch I think I missed about half the spoken dialogue. 

And while I applaud the decision of book writer Edna Walsh, director John Tiffany and other Once creators not to try to enact movie scenes verbatim, but rather adapt them for the stage--a single, unchanged set piece of a Dublin bar interior served as a backdrop for everything, even when the action takes place in a music store or a vacuum shop--I also felt my physical distance limited my emotional embrace of this tender show. 

In his 4 star (out of 4) review, the Tribune's Chris Jones suggests that Once fits perfectly into the expanse of the Oriental, saying that "nothing will be lost" upon viewing it in the large venue. But with great respect for Jones, I doubt he was seated in the upper balcony for the performance he reviewed. 

So while mine is likewise a positive review of a musical that has great merits, including an impressive cast of on-stage musicians--leads Ward & de Waal were proficient on guitar and piano, as well as stellar singers--given the Tony Award, Jones' raves and my fondness for the film, my high expectations weren't quite met for Once.

Wanting to assume the material exceeds my response to it, I blame being in the cheap seats in a great, big theater. I already look forward to the day I see Once at the Marriott Theater Lincolnshire, and/or somewhere even smaller. I think then it will render the emotional impact that is likely there, but diminished by watching through binoculars and straining to catch & comprehend each word being said.

For while there are several compelling strains in the narrative--about music, muses, love, perseverence, parental relationships, recording studios, broken vacuum cleaners and more--my favorite moments in Once were pretty consistently the songs. 

Which makes it essentially no better, I imagine, than seeing the Swell Season--Hansard & Irglová as a touring duo--or simply watching the DVD of the movie...from the relative intimacy of my couch. 

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