Opening night of ONCE in Memphis is the most enthralling performance of the year

Stuart Ward and Dani de Waal from the ONCE Tour Company © Joan Marcus
Stuart Ward and Dani de Waal from the ONCE Tour Company © Joan Marcus

If I could describe Once to anyone who hasn’t seen it, it would be this: Once takes everything we think a Broadway show should be, and flips it on it’s head. The show quite simply obliterates any prior experience an audience has with a musical. It is by far the most brilliant show I’ve seen and I left the theatre feeling all-together inspired, moved and overwhelmed. Running through this weekend at the Orpheum Theatre in Memphis, TN, Once is a show of intense performances and beautiful music.

Once has it’s roots in Irish independent cinema. The movie stars Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova who both wrote the score, and won an Academy Award for their song “Falling Slowly.” (Their acceptance speech was also one of the sweetest and least-rehearsed of the night) Truthfully, I was baffled when I heard the film was going to be turned into a Broadway musical. I’m a huge fan of the film, and even more so of the soundtrack, but picturing it on Broadway was almost mind-numbing. The film is so delicate, while Broadway is notorious for never being subtle. 

The Once Tour Company.  © Joan Marcus
The Once Tour Company. © Joan Marcus

Tuesday night shattered any and every possible worry I had for Once as a stage musical. If anything the the stage version offers a fuller and more complete view of the film. While the film was beautiful, it still had it’s limitations. It was quiet and at times without tension. The plot sometimes seemed loose or incomplete. The saving grace was the performances and music by Hansard and Irglova. This depiction of Once expands on what made the film so winning, while keeping it’s integrity.

I knew we were in for an experience when I took my seat and discovered we could walk onstage for a drink. Producer Enda Walsh explains, “We wanted the audience to own the experience…. And how you do that? You allow them onstage.” Being able to see the set up close and interact with cast members who were acting as bartenders was a fascinating way of breaking the fourth wall between viewer and performer. This line became even more blurred when the show started entirely informally. Quietly and almost out of nowhere, five musicians entered the stage and started performing as the audience mingled by the bar. At first, it seemed like a pre-show warm-up. Quickly though, the audience was ushered off and the slow realization set in that this is the show. It took nearly ten minutes for the theatre to quiet down and give their full attention to the stage. And then, the star of the show, UK actor Stuart Ward took center stage. He began playing “Leave” and all at once the house lights began to darken. A spotlight fell on Ward, and a star was born.

Stuart Ward from the ONCE Tour Company.  © Joan Marcus
Stuart Ward from the ONCE Tour Company. © Joan Marcus

Rarely do I see two performers as gifted or as nuanced as Ward and his co-star Dani de Waal. The chemistry and passion was undeniable from the first moment they played “Falling Slowly” together at a quiet piano shop. Ward (playing the role of Guy) and de Waal (playing the role of Girl) portray two very different personalities but blend together so well in every musical number.

Their story begins when Girl asks Guy to repair her hoover vacuum cleaner in exchange for music. She plays the piano and he writes the music while playing guitar. At first Guy is begrudgingly shy about performing his music for her. But over the course of two days the characters fall in love, create an album for Guy to take to New York and make some extremely crucial life decisions. Their chance, brief encounter becomes a seminal kicking off point to the rest of their lives.

It’s a love story, but also a very non-traditional one. Without giving away any spoilers, the ending is probably not what the audience would expect but it is realistic to a fault. Every song represents a new emotion and feeling the characters are experiencing in that moment. As Guy tells Girl in one moment of extreme frustration, “I wrote these songs for her [my ex] but they are about YOU. These songs are for you now.”

Even in moments where I wouldn’t expect the music to be so exciting, it is. The scene changes are bursting with creativity and energy. The supporting cast members continually made a huge impression on me by proving they are just as strong and capable actors as the leads. At times I found myself waiting for a scene change just to see what new choreography or music would be thrown in.

The highlight was either the almost chilling performance of “When Your Mind’s Made Up” (which was always a favorite in the film) or “Gold”–both in the karaoke bar and accapella. I felt almost embarrassed by the tears welling up in my eyes, “I shouldn’t be crying over a PERFORMANCE!”, I scolded myself. But these moments made me feel privileged to see such incredible, raw talent in my city. This is what makes us want to see live shows; this is when you could hear a pen drop in the audience because we were so floored.

The music is unfailingly gorgeous. These are not show tunes. In every performance there is a live band on stage who is also part of the show. Violinists, cello players and drummers all join in at unexpected moments. They dance and act too. They are not just background accessories, and this is a true testament to the strength of the show. The energy is always at a fever pitch because of these musicians.

By the final reprise of “Falling Slowly”, this time including the entire 12 piece cast, the audience was enraptured. A standing ovation ensued and as I was leaving I overheard so many stunned conversations. “I would go see this again…and again…and again,” one woman told her friend. And I would have to agree: this is the best piece of theatre I’ve seen (War Horse being a close second) and I would encourage anyone who has a chance to see it to do so. The show is built on subtleties and letting the audience fall as in love with it as the characters do with each other. Props are thrown onstage out of nowhere, sets are built up in our imaginations and somewhere along the way we become deeply, madly in love with this musical. Once is not to be missed.

If you are in Memphis and are a student or teacher, you’re in luck! Every performance from now until Sunday (November 2nd) is $20 with a student ID. Tickets are available at the Orpheum box office and website.

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