Entertainment

‘Once’ comes to Belk Theater on first national tour

“Once” proves lightning strikes twice, and here are three reasons to consider seeing the show when the national tour opens at Belk Theater Tuesday.

First, the beloved film (which won a Best Song Oscar for 2006) has been adapted and expanded without major changes to atmosphere or plot. The play amazed viewers at the 2012 Tony Awards, leading all shows with eight wins.

Second, you can drink onstage – before the first act begins and at intermission, anyhow. The show takes place in a Dublin pub with a working bar, and you can walk up and buy beer, wine or whiskey when the action’s not underway.

Third, Dani de Waal. No, you haven’t heard of her. She plays Girl, the Czech muse of an Irish musician who has almost quit his career, in what the Chicago Tribune called “a lovely performance ... from this beautiful British singer.” She has traveled for exactly one year with this first national tour, which requires performers to play their own instruments.

“It’s an actor’s musical, a play with music rather than a show where we break into song and everything stops,” she says. “I’d define myself as an actress who can also sing, so I love doing this.

“This is my first experience playing the piano in a professional sense. It’s the kind of stuff I’ve played before, but never in front of a large crowd, so I was definitely nervous about my big solo (on “Falling Slowly,” the Oscar-winning song). Once I had a few shows under my belt, I knew I could do it. And Girl’s not supposed to be a great pianist. So if I make a mistake, they know I’m playing live!”

Musicals weren’t her goal when she graduated from London’s Guildhall School of Music & Drama in 2011. She played Chekhov, Euripides and Restoration comedy in London before popping into the West End run of “Mamma Mia!” for a year as the soon-to-wed Sophie. Now, three years out of school, she has embarked on her second one-year run, this time across America.

“You realize you need fewer things in life: a couple of things to wear, your toiletries, your guitar and that’s it,” she says of the wandering life. “I’m happy on the road. I moved to New York from London about a year after I got this, and now I’m seeing all these other places where I could imagine living.”

Simplicity remains the keynote for “Once,” which critics often describe as “minimal” or “unassuming.”

“The film was such a delicate, raw piece that you wonder, ‘How can you put this onstage and keep the essence of that?’ Obviously, there are characters we don’t see in the film, and the play is longer. The big change is that music is put in the foreground, because we all play our instruments and songs have been added.”

Yet simplicity can be deceptive, as the non-dancing choreography – which earned a Tony nomination – reveals.

“It’s movement that’s an extension of what we’re feeling, but it’s very precise,” she says. “We may be moving chairs, but in a structured way. When everyone’s doing the same thing together, it’s very powerful. Movement (technique) I studied at drama school is close to the stuff we do here, rather than the tap class I took when I was 10.”

So the audience has to lean in closer than usual for a musical and stay focused?

“A big part of the show is what’s not being said. The silences are as important as the lines, and they’re what changes night to night. We need the audience to be absolutely with us, to breathe with us and not (expect us to) fill every moment with action or words. We’re all living in the moment of that show on that night.”

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