On the surface, the 2012 Broadway musical "Once" might appear cloying and pretentious. For instance, the leads are generically called "Guy" and "Girl," the show's single-unit set is Bob Crowley's seen-better-days Irish pub and the entire acting ensemble also doubles as a footstomping onstage band.
But this eight-time Tony Award-winning adaptation of director John Carney's Academy Award-winning 2006 Irish film musical is actually a stupendous film-to-stage creation that buzzes with theatricality and emotional tenderness. Playwright Enda Walsh ("Penelope") and director John Tiffany ("Black Watch") have brilliantly expanded and enlarged the film's framework while celebrating the way that music, inspiration and love can intertwine and help prod people to change their lives.
"Once"★ ★ ★ ˝
Location: Oriental Theatre, 24 W. Randolph St., Chicago, (800) 775-2000 or broadwayinchicago.com
Showtimes: 7:30 p.m. Thursday through Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday through Nov. 10
Running time: About two hours and 30 minutes with intermission
Parking: Area pay garages
Rating: For teens and older; features profanity
The story is simple. Guy (Stuart Ward), a Dublin busker guitarist, is befriended by the impoverished Girl (Dani de Waal), a Czech immigrant pianist who encourages and cajoles him to make a recording demo of his original, heart-wrenching songs.
Guy is still emotionally stuck from a breakup with his ex-girlfriend (Erica Swindell) and hardly inspired by his humdrum job in a vacuum repair shop owned by his widower dad (Raymond Bokhour). But Guy soon becomes fascinated and enamored by the insistent Girl and her many music-making friends.
These include the bearishly romantic music store owner Billy (a very funny Evan Harrington) and the Girl's Czech friends and family (played by Matt DeAngelis, Donna Garner, Alex Nee and Claire Wellin), who learn English by watching soap operas.
Of course there are complications, especially when the Girl reveals that she has a young daughter named Ivanka (Kolette Tetlow). There's also the matter of getting a loan from the recalcitrant Bank Manager (an amusing Benjamin Magnuson).
Aided by choreographer Steven Hoggett, director Tiffany stages this charming will-they-or-won't-they romance as a whirlwind swirl of movement and music punctuated with quiet moments of longing and restraint. Though the "Once" score by Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová was originally written for film (including the hit "Falling Slowly"), it also works wonders onstage with rousing Celtic and Slavic-influenced numbers for the extremely talented ensemble. The more plaintive songs in particular give Ward's Guy and de Waal's Girl a wonderful way to expose their characters' inner turmoil in beautifully rendered performances.
The intimate energy is at times slightly dissipated by the size of the Oriental; perhaps the smaller Bank of America Theatre would have been a better fit. Nonetheless, "Once" is a winner and an ultimate "date night" experience.
Be sure to arrive early for the preshow as the cast jams through a few folk songs. You can also buy a drink from the onstage bar and be a part of the infectious merriment in the "Once" pub.