On Stage: A One-Set Wonderland

by Erica Moody

Once’ transforms a Kennedy Center stage into an Irish jig full of surprises. 

By Selene San Felice

Courtesy Photo

“Once” at the Kennedy Center (Courtesy Photo)

Nothing can prepare viewers for the experience that is “Once.” Running at the Kennedy Center until Aug. 16, this musical takes the story of the 2007 indie hit film and transforms it into a folksy wonderland. Whether they’re theater virgins or think they’ve seen it all, every audience member will find themselves “Falling Slowly” down the Irish rabbit hole.

After his girlfriend leaves him to move to New York, a Dublin man only referred to as “Guy” is left to wallow in his own sadness, until a Czech woman, Girl, saves him. Together the unlikely duo attempt to make an album, while she teaches him to fall back in love with music, life and love itself. Their struggle for success unites the Czech and Irish from banker, to small business owner, and fast-food manager to recording studio head.

Aside from Guy and Girl, a small cast of 11 Dubliners and Czechs make up the island of misfit musicians. Each cast member plays an instrument, not only defining the characters but bringing personality to the music as well. Every character’s instrument is as strong as their voice and character. Most notable are the performances of Tina Stafford, who plays Girl’s mother, as well as the accordion, and Erica Swindell who plays Réza and the violin. While their roles are small, these women add unforgettable elements to the sound of “Once.” As Girl, Dani de Waal charms the audience with a sweet Czech accent; a strong, beautiful voice and plenty of laughs.

Just as unforgettable as the characters is the musical’s set. A curved wall of aged mirrors may seem like a simple backdrop for a bar or a shop, but with the help of great performances, lighting and a few extra pieces of furniture, audiences can suspend their disbelief to let the mirrors take them all over Dublin and even above it. The mirrors allow the audience to glimpse different angles of the characters, most notably Girl’s fingers as they dance across a piano. She can still face the audience head on and allow them to watch her play. Depending on where viewers are seated, the mirrors play into the story by isolating and highlighting a single character. Different angles and positions allow each audience member to create their own perspective, making “Once” an undeniably unique experience. While the hall of mirrors is enchanting, it is also deceiving, offering surprises with each scene and pulling a few tricks of its own.

Pushing the playbill further, “Once” provides a unique experience before the lights even go down. Thirty minutes before the show is to begin, audience members are welcome to purchase drinks from an on-stage bar and do a jig of their own. For late-comers this opportunity is also available during intermission.

Just before the opening number of a theater production an orchestra usually plays the overture, which tends to go unnoticed and occasionally talked through. In the case of “Once,” the moment audience members enter the theater they are immersed in a performance and thrown into the wonderland of Dublin. Cast members with smaller roles shine here with dance numbers and solos that put them in the spotlight before the viewers are immersed in the story of Girl and Guy. Scott Waara, who play’s Da (Guy’s father), captures the audience’s attention with a solo so beautiful that all chitchat is eliminated.

“Once” is as much comedy as it is drama and genius musicality. Jokes are balanced with passion just as dance numbers balance out singing and playing. Those who come unprepared, wondering why they’ve been sent to watch people prance around in folksy, almost country style clothes, will leave knowing exactly why the show took home eight Tonys and a Grammy. The love story may be captivating, but every character shines in this show. Love is shown as a wonderland of joy, while characters are still grounded in the reality of responsibility. Eventually we must all leave the rabbit hole, and “Once’s” ending is so bittersweet that audience members will find themselves wanting to rush the stage and buy a drink just to get another taste. Alas, viewers will leave the theater having fallen in love and had their hearts broken all at once.

“Once” continues through August 16 at the Kennedy Center,2700 F St., NW. Tickets are $65-$160 and available at 202-467-4600 or online here

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