Thank goodness for the second act of Once. Without it, the Tony-winning Broadway musical that opened at the Straz Center on Tuesday wouldn't live up to the potential of its rousing music and innovative staging.
The show, based on a 2006 movie of the same name, is most compelling when telling its story through stirring strings and tight harmonies. Everything about the show's score (written by the movie's stars, professional musicians Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová) feels organic. When the songs are humming along, Once feels wholly original and vital.
But the musical has trouble turning those songs into a compelling story.
Once follows a Dublin guy (Stuart Ward) and a Czech girl (Dani de Waal), who meet in a Dublin pub and spend a few life-changing days together. After hearing Guy belt out a song, Girl takes an immediate interest in him, pushing him to pursue his music further and eventually helping him record some of his songs.
It's not much of a story, but a lack of plot can be overcome with strong characterization and command of tone. Once doesn't have a great handle on either.
The problems lie mostly in the first act, which too often is played for laughs, and in the character of Girl. Once is a lot sillier than you'd think given its source material, a movie that captured the melancholy of love and day-to-day life. That's not a problem on its own, but the show's wrenching score doesn't jibe with, say, broad jokes about how unsexy Josh Groban songs are.
And as written, the character of Girl comes across like a Broadway Zooey Deschanel, all quirky and upbeat and full of phrases like "You can't walk through your life leaving unfinished love behind you." She's the kind of person who thinks it's necessary to say "Hello" to a piano before playing it, and she does it all with a distracting Czech accent that is hard to take seriously.
De Waal is terrific throughout (her second act showstopper The Hill is breathtaking), but the character is a tough nut to crack. Her connection with Guy would seem stronger throughout if we knew what was driving her to help him — it's never really made clear.
She deepens in the second act considerably, as does the entire musical. One scene between Girl and Guy standing above the set "outdoors" goes a long way toward establishing their chemistry and what makes each of them tick; it should happen way earlier in the show.
At least it's easy to see what Girl finds so appealing about Guy. He's a much more compelling character right off the bat, and Ward brings him to life with a force that's hard to look away from, especially when he starts to sing. His rich, dynamic voice succeeds both as a plaintive whisper and a yearning wail.
The 11-member supporting ensemble, which also acts as the orchestra, is fantastic, and indeed the strongest moments of Once happen when everyone is in on the action, whether playing instruments and stomping along to Guy's love song Gold, or singing the powerful When Your Mind's Made Up in the recording studio. (Steven Hoggett's choreography, full of thumping movements and evocative hand gestures, is quite effective.)
Throughout, the songs — which sound more Mumford and Sons than Broadway — convey a grit that the rest of the musical lacks. It's there that Once finds the wistfulness, the desire, the sadness that was so pervasive in the movie.
That's especially true for the show's most famous number, Falling Slowly, which won an Oscar when it appeared in the movie. It's played twice in the show, first as Guy and Girl are getting to know each other and, wisely, as the last thing you hear. It translates beautifully to the stage, an instant classic from those first gentle piano chords to a giant swell at the end. You won't soon forget its haunting melody, its melancholy yet uplifting spirit. It's something the entire play could use more of.