Everybody was on his/her best behavior prior to the opening of the musical Once, Broadway/San Diego’s current entry and an expectational standout amid its 2012 Tonys (it won eight and was nominated for 11) and its rave reviews from all over the universe. Patrons were invited onstage for drinks and water at the bar (the play’s setting), and they rocked the sprightly, Celtic-tinged live music that slowly brought the show into its story – an unlikely meeting between two young people whose stories of love and loss fuel some pivotal changes in their lives.
It turns out, though, that the initial gathering morphed into another, then another, then another, without theater ever declaring its presence. This Once isn’t a play so much as a concert with speeches, fueled by a sketch rather than a story and gimmicks like the pre-show fun, beset with damnable audio problems and haunted by a recurring musical theme its creator insists you don’t forget or else.
How can so deficient a piece command such adulation? No way to really know, except to cite a serious precedent.
Think Neil Simon and the awards he’s won for absolutely nothing. You get the idea.
A Dublin guitarist/singer-songwriter (Stewart Ward), herein unnamed, is pining for his big break – for now, he ekes out a living fixing vacuum cleaners in his dad’s repair shop and works gigs when they’re available. The unnamed girl he meets (Dani de Waal), a native Czech, is sort of in the same boat; she plays piano when she can and takes care of family the rest of the day. She’ll eventually inspire her friend as she helps him put together a demo disc he can take to London in hopes he’ll land a music contract. Over their week or so together, the pair recount their past romances and experience their fledgling love for one another.
If the storyline sounds familiar, that’s because it is. Once is also a movie from 2006 (I haven’t seen it), and it won several film critics awards and the 2007 Best Song Oscar (for “Falling Slowly”) as it presumably featured staples like dissolves, fades and crops that help a director guide the story. (Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová, who played the movie’s guy and girl, also wrote the play’s music and lyrics.)
No such luck here, as theater is too up close and personal to tolerate discretions that might work in another medium. The namelessness connotes mystery as opposed to curiosity; the live scene changes fall prey to sameness; the actors’ musicianship (plentiful in this show) confuses the divisions of labor; and the absolutely unremarkable storyline (culminating in the girl’s 11th-hour announcement that she’s married) is left with nothing to color it in a live environment.
Meanwhile, Ward and de Waal not only fail their accents; they’re playing characters that librettist Enda Walsh never defines in context. Ireland and the Czech Republic are absolutely indispensable to human history; it’s a major mystery that Walsh won’t fuel her people with even a shred of that implication (she does fleetingly acknowledge Ireland’s claim to literary greatness, but she does so early on, and she drops the ball after that).
In my 1,200 or so reviews, I’ve mentioned acoustical deficiencies probably ten times, and then only if they’ve really, truly compromised the story — after all, I’m not an audiologist. This review necessarily is one of those ten. The lyrics and tunes garble and fall to earth amid what seems like a choice of volumes, and the actors’ nondescript brogues don’t help. Director John Tiffany isn’t to blame for the lack of quality, but sound designer Clive Goodwin needs to investigate, and now. The rest of the tech is fine, although Bob Crowley’s set design features a host of mirrors, which could be affecting the sound. [php snippet=1]The true test of a good musical is the book’s capacity to stand as a play on its own, with the music acting strictly as a complement to the themes and ideas (that’s what makes My Fair Lady so great and The Sound of Music and Hair, with their lackluster scripts, so overrated). As nice as the music from Once may be (I’m not entirely sold on that), this show violates that standard. And while that standard is only my own, it does take on significance amid this piece’s many other problems.
Once falls far short in meeting the hallmarks of so heralded a showcase; indeed, one of its only redeeming factors is the absence of Neil Simon himself.
[box] This review is based on the opening-night performance of Aug. 13. Once runs through Aug. 17 at the San Diego Civic Theatre, 1100 Third Ave. Downtown. $47.50-$152-50. (619) 570-1100, broadwaysd.com.
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