It’s hard enough for a performer to be a triple threat, able to sing, dance and act, but a musical like “Once” demands even more: every cast member must play an instrument as well. After all, creating music is at the heart of “Once” as it was at the heart of the 2007 indie film that inspired the stage production.
In the case of the touring production of “Once” camped out for three weeks at the Oriental Theatre, the ensemble does a solid turn as its own orchestra. Their voices are good too, and their dancing is passable for the limited choreography in the show. But lost in the shuffle is the electric interaction among the actors that helped the Broadway production amass eight Tony Awards.
All the material elements of the New York version have been left in place: a punchy book by Enda Walsh, who compressed writer/director John Carney’s wonderfully quirky film into an effective work for the stage; appealing music and lyrics by Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová, the real-life duo whose story inspired the film; a flexible stage set by Bob Crowley that brings an Irish pub to Chicago — as if we didn’t have enough of those already. And, as in the original, theatergoers are invited up to the stage before the two-and-one-half-hour show and during intermission to buy a drink at the bar and mingle with the performers.
The cast includes some dynamite performers, most notably Stuart Ward as Guy, an Irish street musician based on Hansard who makes his living repairing vacuum cleaners. Ward, a British actor/singer/songwriter/guitarist is a top talent, an affecting actor and accomplished instrumentalist with a voice more melodic than Hansard’s but with the necessary angst.
As terrific as Ward is, “Once” isn’t a solo show. It is a duet, a lovesick ballad, whose soul comes from Guy’s interactions with Girl, based on Czech musician Markéta, played by Dani De Waal. De Waal has a lovely voice and plays the piano just fine — a large mirror behind the bar reflects the keyboard, a nice touch. But her acting is the weak link in the production. Her Slavic accent sounds British at times (she trained in London), deflating some punch lines powered by the contrast between Girl’s lyric Czech intonation and her no-nonsense utterances.
Without that strong interaction between the leads, “Once” loses some of the energy that propelled it on Broadway. That electricity is key, because “Once” is low-voltage to begin with, almost the opposite of the typical Broadway musical. Rather than having singers belt out formulaic songs, “Once” tells its story quietly with the music that inspired it, and without special effects. With such a delicate show, the Oriental Theatre needs to fine-tune its sound system.
Fortunately, the capable ensemble adds some juice to the show. Evan Harrington, playing guitar, percussion and ukulele as Billy, the owner of the music store where Girl goes to practice piano, is a standout. So is Benjamin Magnuson, on cello and guitar as the Bank Manager. Magnuson manages to turn his wonderful singing voice into a karaoke bad voice in one comic scene. Erica Swindell and Claire Wellin fiddle up a storm and add their honeyed vocalizations to the haunting “If You Want Me.”
As in the film, the poignant “Falling Slowly,” sung near the beginning and reprised at the end, encapsulates the beauty of “Once.” It’s hard not to fall for music like this.
Oriental Theatre, 24 W. Randolph, Chicago
Through Oct. 27, 2013
Tickets $27–$95 at (312) 977-1710 or www.BroadwayinChicago.com