The Roots Report: Once at PPAC

Okee dokee folks … I had the opportunity to experience the musical Once on its first night of a four-show run at the Providence Performing Arts Center. I needed to let it percolate in my brain for a few days and contemplate what I really thought about the show before I wrote this. Initially I really wasn’t sure. I WANTED to love it. I loved the film, the songs and The Swell Season (Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova who wrote the music), so I assumed that I would love Once the musical. Unfortunately this was not the case, in spite of its win of eight Tony Awards.

When I arrived at PPAC I saw a crowd gathered on the stage. These were theater goers who were getting drinks at the functioning bar on the stage and mingling with some of the cast members. Soon the cast began a sort of Irish session. The sounds of guitars, an accordion, a mandolin, a cajon, tambourines, a cello, a banjo, violins, a ukulele, a piano and singing filled the air with lively, unplugged music that sometimes seemed very Mumford and Sons-ish. The scenery was simple: an old Irish pub with lots of antique mirrors and sconces on the wall and chairs. As 7:30 neared, the audience was cleared from the stage and the performers kept on performing for a bit.

The official start of the show was soft. The “Guy” (Sam Cieri) character began to play “Leave.” As he sang and strummed his worn Martin guitar, the theater lights slowly dimmed and the stage lights focused on the performance. At the close of the number, “Girl” (MacKenzie Lesser-Roy) approaches “Guy” and begins a conversation. They talk about music and Hoovers. At one point she remarks “I’m always serious, I’m Czech.” This was repeated a couple of more times throughout the evening. The dialogue, in parts, was amusing.

Just a few minutes into the first act, the Oscar-winning song, “Falling Slowly” was performed. There were short musical interludes and dance numbers to keep the show moving while they changed scenes, which involved little more than chairs, tables and lighting shifts. A couple of the characters had bigger roles in this version of Once: Billy the music store owner, “Girl”’s brothers and “Guy”’s father. There seemed to be far more dialogue in this version than the film. When the Czechs spoke, they spoke in English but ran subtitles in Czech on a light bar above the bar. I guess it was meant to be funny?

The first act closed out with the two songs that were written for the musical, “Abandoned in Bandon” and “Gold.” These songs were not in the film and not composed by Hansard or Irglova. The second act moved along similarly to the first, though with fewer musical numbers. “When Your Mind’s Made Up” was the strongest song of the second half. A reprise of “Falling Slowly” with the ensemble brought the show to a close. The cast members were given a rousing standing ovation.

In all honesty, I had high hopes for this show, but was let down. Once moved slowly and seemed to drag. It felt more like a play with occasional songs than a straight-on musical. The dialogue, though occasionally cute and amusing, seemed labored and long. When there was music I enjoyed it, though the renditions of the songs were far tamer than The Swell Season played them. They lacked the intensity of Hansard’s “Guy.” I think the best number of the night was “Gold.” It felt like it belonged to this show and rightly so, as it was written for the musical, not the film. The musical Once was reverse engineered from the film and it felt like it. Most musicals have songs that propel the story forward in place of endless dialogue. Once the musical doesn’t do this and relies heavily on the dialogue to tell the story. For the most part, the songs, though wonderful, are just songs. They worked completely differently in the film and don’t seem to translate well into a Broadway format. I feel that the show could have been a good half hour shorter and kept the story moving quicker to avoid the drag. This is my opinion. I heard many folks say that they loved it, but I did talk to a couple of people who thought “It was just OK.”

I am going to wrap up my bit here, but leave you with what my mother (yes, mother), Dianne Fuzek, wrote about the show. Mom has been to more stage productions in the past 75 years than most professional reviewers. She has FILES of programs and can remember cast members she saw when she was a kid! Mom likes to post her reviews of the shows she goes to on Facebook. I asked her to hold off and let me publish hers along with mine, and she agreed. She saw the Sunday matinee and here are her thoughts. Read on …

Inside the cavernous Kodak Theatre, on a stage surrounded by a multitude of suspended guitars, with thousands of glittering celebrities on view and viewing, a scruffy Irish folk singer, Glen Hansard, and his shy-appearing music partner, Marketa Irglova, played their lovely 2008 Best Picture nominated song, “Falling Slowly” from the little Indy motion picture Once. As I watched, I thought to myself, “They could really be any ‘folkies,’ much like a great many of our local performers.” However, as they performed, I found the tune and them growing on me. The duo won the Oscar, and Hansard’s acceptance speech ended with two words: “Make art.” 

Having not seen the film, I sought it out and fell in love with it. In three weeks time, with a $100,000 budget, that little film was born.  Apparently the right people at the right time decided to “Make art.” That little film was made into a musical theater piece that landed on Broadway and garnered eight Tony Awards in 2012. This was the show that had a short-run appearance at PPAC.

Anyone who knows me knows I love theater, especially musical theater. I am rather easily pleased, finding some good in every production. If not the from show itself, I derive pleasure from the lights, stage sets and the costumes. This was our second time seeing Once the musical. The first time, I found it not particularly memorable as a play. I found the sweetness and the romantic tension missing, and I was not anticipating my opinion to change.

Inside the theater I was disheartened to see that there were as many theater-goers partaking of the on-stage bar as were were in their assigned seats. Because the actors/musicians were already onstage performing a sort of mini-concert of Irish music, the actual play’s start was a bit confusing.

The practical non-changing set became a pub, a vacuum cleaner store, a recording studio and a hillside all by the random placement of chairs and tables, relying on spot-lighting for mood changes. The Guy (Sam Cieri) and Girl (MacKenzie Lesser-Roy) were well played for the most part, especially the Girl. The cast was fleshed out by a couple of parts that I can only describe as “buffoonery” — a couple of annoying Czechs, and an amusingly silly Billy (John Hays). Although a decent singer, Cieri didn’t fit the part physically, recollecting Hansard in the film. Roy’s dialogue was much clearer and easier to follow, while Cieri’s Irish accent was often muffled. Also, I found the song lyrics inaudible at times. There were several effective songs, among them the first, “Leave,” which almost makes me snicker. It is a breakup song, full of angst, that nearly ends in a primal scream. Of course, “Falling Slowly” was beautifully performed first by Guy and Girl who were joined by the entire cast. Also, “When Your Mind’s Made Up” was beautifully done.

The brief yo-yo, would-be, doomed romance was a bit overshadowed occasionally when the cast would burst out into loud, footstomping Irish songs and shouting, “HEY!!” thus awaking my companion theater-goer – my dozing husband. Tony’s two word critique? Never again! As is my normal procedure – elbowing him when I notice him nodding off — I did not practice that habit for this show. For him, “Falling Slowly” fell entirely too slowly.

Rhode Island has rather a large Irish music/dance fan base. As many members were in attendance, they presented the cast with a loudly appreciative standing “O.”

I think I will seek out the film and watch it “once” more. Dianne Fuzek

That’s it for now. Thanks for reading. Thanks, Mom!

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