In certain ways, Once — at the Winspear throughDec. 28 — is the anti-musical. It’s based on a film, but not a huge hit that demanded a stage adaptation; rather, it’s a downbeat art-house indie flick. From Ireland. About poor people. Poor people? Well, they make musicals about them — Les Miz! But Once is tiny, intimate; it leaves the epic bombast to Webber and Boublil & Schoenberg. It also doesn’t add numbers to stretch out the story (it actually takes away a few from the film), and the characters do something people in musicals never do: They acknowledge that they are singing songs to each other, and talk about how good they are!! Can you imagine Louise telling Mamma Rose that her rendition of “Everything’s Coming Up Roses” really stirred her? It’s really more of a “play with songs.” It affects you more like a play does, in the best possible way.
The plot is simple: A Dublin busker (Stuart Ward) plays on his guitar in a rowdy pub, but just as he’s about to call it quits, an immigrant girl (Dani DeWaal) tells him his music is good. He should keep it up. Oh, and by the way, can he repair her vacuum cleaner? From there a tentative romance burgeons — the girl hemmed in by her family and a husband who lives overseas; the guy by his feelings for a girlfriend who moved to America. Are they destined to be together or torn apart by divided loyalties?
The songs in Once — both the stage show and the film — are among the most impassioned and haunting acoustic ballads ever composed (one, “Falling Slowly,” won the best song Oscar), and they chill me each time I hear them. The setting is as simple as the story, and likewise as deceptive: The entire cast remains onstage almost all the time, each playing instruments and serving as the orchestra, with lighting cues and projected dialogue providing the context (and before the show, serves as an actual working bar for the theater patrons). Once is a chamber musical that feels a bit dwarfed by the Winspear, but while it might fit better in a more intimate venue, there’s no denying its poignancy.