‘Once’ is a beautiful Irish romance that pulls at the heartstrings with gusto

‘Once’ is a beautiful Irish romance that pulls at the heartstrings with gusto

By Jordan Wright (Photo/Joan Marcus)

Calling all romantics: “Once,” the show that won eight Tony Awards in 2012, is a poignant love story set in Dublin where Girl (Dani de Waal) meets Guy (Stuart Ward) on an open mic night in a rundown pub. She’s a piano-playing immigrant from Czechoslovakia. He’s a lovelorn, guitar-playing, vacuum cleaner repairman who’s lost his sweetheart to the lures of New York City.

The rest of the cast, brilliantly talented musicians, singers and dancers, are the onstage orchestra who, when not dancing or interacting on center stage, sit in full view of each other in rows on each side of the one-set stage. Shakespeare would love this.

Although “Once,” at the Kennedy Center until next month, is a musical, it is a quantum leap from the razzledazzle shows we have come to expect from Broadway. Irish playwright Enda Walsh gives us a story with pure Celtic heart and soul, and Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova fill it up with memorable music and meaningful lyrics. Oh well, there is Guy’s goofy number “Broken Hearted Hoover Fixer Sucker Guy”, a paean to Girl and reference to his mundane day job.

There is plenty of dry humor and tongue-in-cheek wit, the sort we expect in Irish theatre, but here often unexpectedly delivered by the Czechs who speak in English with accents while Czech translations are projected above the stage.

Calling all music lovers: This show is for you too, with tremendous performances by Evan Harrington as Billy, the beefy and romantically inept pub owner who plays guitar, percussion and ukulele; Dani de Waal on piano as Girl; Stuart Ward on a mean guitar as Guy; Scott Waara on mandolin as Da, Guy’s supportive father John Steven Gard as Eamon in a role that calls for him to play piano, percussion, melodica and harmonica; Benjamin Magnuson as the
soft-hearted bank manager on cello and guitar; Alex Nee as Andrej on electric bass, ukulele, guitar and percussion; Matt DeAngelis as Svec, the wild and crazy former metalhead who rocks out on guitar, mandolin, banjo, drum set and percussion; Tina Stafford on accordion and concertina as Baruska; Matt DeAngelis as Svec on guitar, mandolin, drums, banjo and percussion; and the fantastic musical talents and duets of Erica Spyres on violin and percussion, and Erica Swindell on violin.

Back to the story, the romance plays out as a series of evolving vignettes to the tune of fierce Irish jigs, tender-hearted ballads and soul-stirring folk rock. Though we wonder if they’ll ever get together, 15 musical numbers keep us guessing and provide tension to the plot.

The show won a Grammy Award for Best Musical Theater Album, and though you may be more familiar with the bittersweet music of “Falling Slowly” and “Leave,” be prepared to take out the tissues for “Gold,” an a cappella showstopper in the second act. Sung by the entire company, the goosebumps-inducing tune fills the theatre with hope and longing and the sense that no matter where our star-crossed lovers end up, we have seen one of the most exquisitely electrifying musicals of our generation.