As a rule, Broadway musicals don't do subtlety. But Once, the little tale of almost-love that opened last week at the Fox Theatre, breaks with many Broadway conventions, exchanging its over-the-top sets and bombast for a wistful and somewhat hokey sentimentality about what might have been.
Based on John Carney's understated 2006 movie, the story could not be simpler. A struggling Irish busker, known only as "Guy" (Stuart Ward), has been living with his widowed father in a dingy apartment while helping out at the family's vacuum repair shop. It's a dreary little life. His girlfriend has left for New York. His music doesn't seem to be going anywhere, and Guy, brooding but folksy, is about to give up on those twin staples of musical theater: his dreams and his love.
But just as he's about to put down his guitar for good, he meets, wait for it, "Girl" (Dani de Waal), a Czech pianist who, after hearing his opening number of lost love, takes it upon herself to rehabilitate Guy's faith in love and music. Of course, she has troubles of her own. She's a single mother who's in a complicated relationship with her daughter's father, who remains in the Czech republic.
"These songs need to be sung," she tells him. Guy doesn't take much convincing, and soon the platonic pair is off to make a demo CD, their crew of zany musician friends in tow.
It's a slender and humble tale, which makes it an idiosyncratic choice for a musical. Nevertheless, director John Tiffany and his able cast embrace the story's modesty. Unlike so many musicals, with their fast-moving props and baroque sets, the backdrop for Once, designed by Bob Crowley, is a warm and woody Irish pub (open to the audience at the beginning of the performance as the cast delivers a hootenanny). Most of the cast, all musicians, sit off to the side for much of the show as the story unfolds through a series of minimalist set changes, often using only a few chairs and a table to create different locations.
That tale, arranged for the stage by playwright Enda Walsh, is one of perpetual yearning. The almost-lovers spend most of their time reaching out in one way or another: the guy, hesitant about his music but quickly falling for the girl who has restored his faith; and the girl, who's falling too, urging him to resist fear and not walk away from love. The music, written by Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová, reinforces this quiet sense of longing, and both Ward and de Waal have strong voices and deliver convincing performances. They are backed by a very strong Raymond Bokhour, who, in the role of Guy's caring father, Da, is handed one of the show's best songs and some of its choice lines. Still, the show is musically front-loaded, with many of its best numbers clustered in the first twenty minutes or so.
Unabashedly sentimental, Once does have its touching moments, as the guy, who wrote his love songs with his ex-girlfriend in mind, rediscovers his ability to love while singing them for the Czech girl, and she, in turn, finds clarity in her own life by helping him break through his emotional logjam.
They could have been lovers. Maybe they should have been lovers. But their lives are already in motion. He has a girlfriend he still loves and she has responsibilities. Their love cannot be fully realized, and they must move on. Still, their brief moment together helps them to heal. They were able to come together, but just this once. Apparently that's enough.