Making its Australian debut, Once makes a strong case for the transcendent power of music
Once is a musical that goes out of its way to win the audience over; inviting people up on stage for drinks on the lovingly detailed set, it plies us with alcohol and music, tugging mercilessly on our heartstrings. It’s almost feverish in its desperation to be loved. Whether or not you’ll succumb may come down to your taste in music and tolerance for naked sentiment.
The narrative is so simple it barely registers. A girl (Madeleine Jones) hears a guy (Tom Parsons) playing in a pub and, noticing his disillusionment with his craft, revives his love of music and convinces him to pursue a career. Mild complications, in the form of an unseen husband for her and a vacuously sweet ghost of a girlfriend for him, prevent them from consummating a soft-core romance. The end.
It’s hardly Dickensian. There is, however, a lot of juicy musical fruit hung on the dangerously thin narrative vine. From the driving sincerity of Leave to the glorious a cappella lilt of Gold, the show is packed with musical substance. If it isn’t traditional Broadway musical fare, it does have a winning immediacy and is undeniably soulful.
The writer (Enda Walsh) and director (John Tiffany) have brought some deft theatricality to this stage adaptation of the 2007 film. There is nothing heavy-handed or self-conscious about the translation of the material, and this new production quickly establishes a glowing warmth and generosity. Choreography (Steven Hoggett) lifts the material out of realism and into something more lyrical. By the time the Oscar-winning duet Falling Slowly hits its peak, the audience is swooning.
Much of the success can be laid at the feet of the extraordinary cast. Equipped with guitars, cellos, pianos and violins, even a piano accordion, all the while singing with effortless grace and conviction, they are a magnificent ensemble. The intricate harmonies and startling leaps in the music are so unforced they’re made to look easy. If Greg Stone as Da, Susan-ann Walker as Baruška and Brent Hill as Švec stand out it is only because their roles are more clearly delineated.
As the central guy and girl, Parsons and Jones are triumphant. His voice in particular is a thing of wonder; delicate and soaring, it’s reminiscent of James Blunt, only good. She brings an affectionate honesty to the disarming girl, and nails her wonderful solo, The Hill. Together, they are sublime.
The production is hard to fault. The barroom set (Bob Crowley) is beautifully done, versatile but atmospheric, using mirrors to reflect the performers back at us, allowing multiple perspectives and revealing vantage points. The lighting (Natasha Katz) and sound design (Clive Goodwin) are consummate.
In many ways, Once is an unlikely hit. The central love affair is so muted and unresolved it feels almost tepid. The songs don’t have any bearing on the plot, and aren’t used to further the story in any way. The second act meanders and limps along, ignoring standard narrative structures entirely. Even the cultural stereotypes are cheesy and simplistic.
And yet the opening night audience went wild for it, responding no doubt to the infectious generosity and skill of the performers, and that stunning, transcendent music. If this show is about the role that music plays in forging spiritual connections between people, then it makes a pretty fine case.