National Tour Review: ONCE (Oriental Theatre in Chicago)

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by Lawrence Bommer on October 10, 2013

in Theater-Chicago,Tours


Ironically, the real-life love affair celebrated on film and in the theater by co-creators Glen Hasard, an Irish composer, and Marketa Irglova, a Czech songwriter, fizzled after John Carney’s 2007 film of Once became a success. (Well, it’s not called Once for nothing.) But its Tony-triumphant musical version, now in a soaring touring stop at the Oriental Theatre, opens its heart as it does its stage to audience members.

Maybe love didn’t imitate art. But that’s just when the latter improves on life.

Stuart Ward and Dani de Waal from the ONCE Tour Company

The setting is a semi-circular Dublin pub bedecked with mirrors and featuring a baker’s dozen of cast members who triple up well as musicians–and less so as dancers. Once depicts an unlikely partnership where music sets the measures. Here the generically named “Guy” (Stuart Ward), a self-denigrating dreamer who’s in lopsided and unrequited love with a colleen who escaped to New York, is about to give up on music as well as love: He’ll settle for repairing vacuum cleaners at his dad’s North Strand shop. It’s time to “Leave.”

The cast of the ONCE Tour Company

Suddenly and sweetly, a kind of earthly Muse intervenes in the person of a young Czech woman named “Girl.” This Mendelssohn-loving pianist (and Eastern European Dolly Levi) refuses to let him put his guitar (or his genius) away. Unstoppably honest, Girl dares him to fulfill his destiny—a fate that may or won’t bring them passion as well as fame. In any case their first song, the enthralling “Falling Slowly,” is a promissory note that must be redeemed. If he repairs her vacuum cleaner, she’ll fix his life.

The cast of the ONCE Tour Company.

But it’s complicated: As much as Guy lost his heart to an expat lover, Girl (Dani de Waal) is married, with her husband back in Czechoslovakia and a daughter named Ivanka (Kolette Tetlow) in Dublin. Still, the urge to make songs creates a beautiful bond: The collaborators get a loan from an anti-capitalist banker (Benjamin Magnuson) who’s also a frustrated rocker. Now known as “The Hoover Man,” Guy is the hit he hoped to be. He discovers that Girl is a reason to compose, just as much as the one who got away.

Cast of the ONCE Tour Company

Yet the inspiration they provide doesn’t necessarily equal or trigger love: “Falling Slowly” takes on a sad new meaning. Impressively, this story is honest enough not to succumb to an audience’s wishful thinking. You can’t write yourself into love, no matter how persuasive the album you create. That’s just what happened to Hansard and Iglova.

Cast of the ONCE Tour Company.

With equal intensity Ward and de Waal (who suggest a kind of reverse Pygmalion where the woman perfects the man, then loses him) generate erotic and artistic excitement. They’re buoyantly backed up by a crazy coterie of Irish eccentrics and Czech confidants. The 15 Grammy-winning songs by Hansard and Irglova that chronicle this cross-cultural courtship never sounded better. Once is quite enough.

Stuart Ward and Dani de Waal from the ONCE Tour Company.

photos by Joan Marcus

Broadway in Chicago at the Oriental Theatre
scheduled to end on Oct. 27, 2013
for tickets call 800-775-2000 or visit
for future cities and dates, visit

for info on this and other Chicago Theater, visit

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