There’s a reason “Once” takes place in a pub – and it’s not just so theatergoers can drink on the set before the show and at intermission, when most couldn’t get past the crush of playgoers to reach the bar.
It’s because a pub is the place where the Irish go to tell stories, to share sorrows, to relive dreams that succeeded (perhaps with exaggeration) and console themselves with whiskey for dreams that let them down. The phrase implied in the title is not “Once in a lifetime” but “Once upon a time.”
We are in fairyland in this adaptation of the much-loved movie, one where vacuum cleaners magically appear when needed as props and everyone in Dublin (one little girl excluded) possesses musical chops. Not only does the burger-shop manager play bass guitar, but the banker making collateral-free loans has a deft hand with a cello.
What people liked most about the 2006 film, aside from a score featuring the Oscar-winning “Falling Slowly,” was its unpretentious honesty. It depicted the lives of a disgruntled Irish singer-songwriter and the young Czech woman who becomes his muse – archetypes called simply “Guy” and “Girl” – sentimentally yet simply.
The film’s emotional honesty transfers to the play, perhaps because John Carney directed both. Yet in adapting Carney’s screenplay for the book of the musical, Enda Walsh has added whimsy, a humor that can be sophisticated but often slips gently into silliness.
Where the movie seemed precisely the right length at 85 minutes, the stage version feels a bit padded. Eight songs from the film have been retained, and they’re the best of the 14 in the show, except for the rousing Czech number “Ej, Pada, Pada, Rosicka.”
The chemistry between headstrong Guy and seemingly unflappable Girl (Stuart Ward and Dani de Waal) works as we’d hope; the most memorable musical moments come when they’re together or apart, playing one of Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová’s affecting songs.
And the ensemble, led by Evan Harrington as a blustery music store owner and Stephen McIntyre as the guitar-loving bank manager, moves with the precision of a year spent together on the road. Twin fiddlers Erica Spyres and Erica Swindell lead the ensemble with solos that can be fiery or yearning.
Carney and Walsh have added one touch that makes us smile yet reminds us more than ever how foreign life is for Girl and her compatriots in Dublin. When they speak, we hear English but see Czech supertitles above the stage. That leads to the show’s cleverest moment, when Girl’s mama (Donna Garner) delivers a long, wise and profane monologue that her daughter translates to Guy simply as “Good luck.”
The technique leads to the saddest moment, too. Girl has already explained to Guy that she has a husband in the Czech Republic who has a claim on her; finally, when she admits she loves her new musical collaborator, she dares to do so only in words she knows he won’t understand.