By ANDY GRAY
CLEVELAND - "Once" won't be the biggest and splashiest musical to come to PlayhouseSquare this season as part of the KeyBank Broadway Series, but it probably will be the best.
There is mastery in its simplicity, and the first national tour is every bit as enchanting as the Broadway production that won the 2012 Tony Award for Best Musical. I wouldn't say it surpasses the New York production but, if anything, I enjoyed it more the second time. I certainly appreciated the achievement more.
Even with an Oscar-winning song, the 2007 film "Once" wasn't an obvious choice for a Broadway production. The low-budget Irish film about an Irish busker/vacuum cleaner repairman and a young Czech immigrant - identified simply as Guy and Girl - who bond through music is quiet and melancholic, a story told as much through the silence between the songs as the songs themselves.
How the creative team maintained that intimacy while transforming it into a show that works in front of a live audience is an impressive feat.
When you go
WHERE:?Palace Theatre, Playhouse Square, 1519 Euclid Ave.
WHEN:?Show times are 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, 1:30 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday and 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sunday through Nov. 24.
HOW?MUCH:?Tickets range from $10 to $85 and are available by calling 216-241-6000 and online at www.playhousesquare.org.
"Once" features a cast of 13 actors who also serve as the band, playing guitar, fiddle, mandolin, ukulele, banjo, piano, cello, accordion and percussion as the songs by Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova (the stars of the film) include singer-songwriter balladry, acoustic rock and Irish and Czech folk.
When the characters aren't involved in the primary action, they usually are seated in chairs on the perimeter of the set, providing accompaniment or just watching the action.
And that set is one of the stars of the show. The backdrop is a working Irish pub - audience members can go on stage before the show and at intermission and order a drink - and its earthy brown walls are covered with dozens of worn, antiqued mirrors. The way Bob Crowley's set design and Natasha Katz's lighting design work together is magical. A large mirror behind the bar lets the audience see the Girl's reaction the first time she hears one of Guy's songs, and at pivotal moments the lighting the reflected in the mirrors, multiplying its impact.
Stuart Ward and Dani de Waal have great chemistry on stage as Guy and Girl. Their voices mesh beautifully on "Falling Slowly," which is the showstopper that it should be. Ward's delivery seemed a bit clipped on "Leave," his opening number, which initially had me worried that his didn't have the sustain in his voice to handle Hansard's songs. But it clearly was a stylistic choice, because Ward had no trouble capturing the vocal power and emotion of such songs as "Say It to Me Now" and "When Your Mind's Made Up."
And de Waal is charming as Girl. With her forthrightness and sunniness, it's easy to believe she could shake Guy out of the funk he is in at the start of the show. There is more of a comedic element to the Girl character than there is in the film, but de Waal never lets jokes built around the character's accent turn her into a cartoon.
For more broad comedy, Evan Harrington stands out as passionate Irish/Spanish music shop owner in Dublin with a crush on Girl and a dislike for bankers from Cork.
There are a couple of minor missteps. For a show that flows so naturally, even in the rapid transitions, there are some odd bits of interpretive dance - "If You Want Me," in particular - that seem jarringly out of place. But they don't detract from the overall power of an exquisite show.