Phoenix Theatre, London
March 16, 2003 – March 21, 2015
While often it is good to put reviewer pen to paper (or fingers to laptop) as soon as possible after a show, sometimes there is benefit to not immediately writing a review. The musical “Once” falls into the latter category; as I sat surrounded by an audience of members moved to tears, I can’t say that I was a fan, however, with the passing of some reflective time, my feelings have softened. I’ve even now Ituned the soundtrack.
This is the nature of the “Once” beast. The unassuming, multiple Tony Award winning musical, which is based on the 2006 movie of the same name, is far from your usual musical, as it mourns the sadness of life’s missed opportunities. Following the departure of his girlfriend to live in New York, ‘guy’ (Ronan Keating) spends his evenings in a Dublin bar singing of his misery and his days dejectedly working as a vacuum repairer. Enter ‘girl’ (Jill Winternitz), a talented pianist (with husband back in the Czech Republic) with whom he bonds over a love of music as she forces him to raise the funds to make a demo-tape, while quickly (like “Romeo and Juliet” the story spans just five days) falling in love with him too.
This is a simple, yet simply lovely show, largely because it doesn’t follow either a traditional love story or the failure-to-fame narrative formula. In fact, when it comes to narrative, it is pretty light on. And with little backstory detail, it is difficult to feel empathetic to any of the characters.
The single set is warm and welcoming in its ambiance, which is suited to the intimate Phoenix theatre venue, staged as it is in a Irish pub space. And in the pre-show and intermission times, patrons in the stalls are invited to head to the on-stage bar to drink and then be entertained by a range of Irish tunes, from bawdy belt-outs to soulful ballads, as part of an impromptu ceilidh. However, folksy as it is, there is a fine line between device and gimmick in attempt to have a show be loved.
Beautiful in sentiment and unashamedly romantic, the show’s musical segments convey emotion more than plot details. The songs range from a rousing rendition of ‘When Your Mind’s Made Up’ to the gentle and lingering ‘Leave’, with the final melody of ‘Falling Slowing’ lasting long after the curtain call. It’s just a pity that so many of the other yearning ballads sound so similar.
Keating is respectable in his role as the broken-hearted Dublin singer-songwriter, ‘guy’. As an actor, however, he’s a talented singer and musician and this is the perfect vehicle for sharing these gifts. Winternitz brings a lot of humour, with comedy coming for her quirky Czech confusion and deadpan delivery. She does a decent job, but, like Keating, doesn’t particularly shine. The show’s lack of personality in this regard is somewhat compensated by the energy of the actor-musicians who share the stage, filling it with fiddle, guitar, drum, accordion and mandolin sounds that are intrinsically part of the experience.
“Once” is a heartwarming, but bittersweet take on the guy-meets-girl musical formula. As an alternative to the usual jazz hand musicals, I can see why it resonates with so many people who think of its tenderness as magical, but I found it to be bit dull. Generally speaking, the songs are sad to the point of anguish and so plentiful that it sometimes seems to be more concert than anything else. Although, for many, this is where the low-key show’s success as a modern day fairy tale lies, for me it was a case of once probably being enough.