Once: not twice

The Arts Club is presenting Once at the Granville Island Stage.

Gili Roskies as Girl and Adrian Glynn McMorran as Guy in Once. Kiss one another already. (Photo by Emily Cooper)

Once is more than enough.

Yes, Once won Tony Awards for Best Musical and Best Book of a Musical in 2012, along with six other Tonys. And it has hauled in a bunch of other prizes, too, but man it’s boring!

Here’s the plot: boy meets girl; they dither endlessly. To be more specific, in working-class Dublin, a young Irishman who’s identified only as Guy meets a young Czech immigrant whom the script calls Girl. Guy is depressed—he’s just been dumped—and he has given up on his dreams of having a musical career. Then, through her sheer perkiness, Girl lifts Guy out of his funk. A musician herself, she presses Guy not to abandon his music. As this is going on, Girl and Guy waver about whether or not to act on the romantic feelings they obviously have for one another. They waver. And waver. Then, after the intermission, they waver some more. This kind of romantic indecision is just fine in friends but when you go to the theatre, you don’t want to feel like you’re spending the night stuck in a stalled car.

Music is the other major motor that’s driving Once—or attempting to drive it. The plaintive “Falling Slowly” is lovely both melodically and lyrically: “Take this sinking boat and point it home.” And “Gold”, which is sung a cappella, is richly harmonic. So many of the songs are plaintive, however, that the score as a whole starts to feel a bit wet. And the form is repetitive: the ballads start simply and quietly then build to their climaxes by acquiring increasingly complex harmonies and accompaniment—with an emphasis on strings.

By applying a whole lot of precision and subtlety, the touring production that came through town a while ago made this material work better than it does in this Arts Club mounting.

To make the central relationship interesting, the actors playing Girl and Guy have to build narrative tension and create a story arc by infusing the script with nuance that isn’t clearly laid out on the page. In other words, they have to find a satisfying build in the interior lives of their characters.

Playing Guy, Adrian Glynn McMorran delivers the most naturalistic performance of the evening and that’s definitely the direction to go. He also sings with heartfelt intensity. The role of Girl has more problems built into it: her pushy optimism is a deliberate construction that can by cloying. Within that, Gili Roskies does a solid job with Girl. Roskies’s singing voice has a hint of breathiness in it, which lends it a sense of intimacy, and she knows how to work a song’s dynamics. That McMorran and Roskies don’t bring enough depth to their characterizations to save the central relationship isn’t their fault: it’s not an actor’s job to create narrative shape that’s only hinted at in the script.

There are other strengths in this production, notably Catriona Murphy’s crisp, authoritative performance as Bank Manager. And there’s pleasure in seeing all of the performers including Murphy acting as the band. Everybody in the cast plays a handful of instruments and you can’t help but marvel at the variety of their talents.

That said, under Bill Millerd’s direction, this production is scruffy in a number of ways. The kindest word to describe many of the accents might be “original”. And performers in most of the secondary roles overact.

Once is essentially a mood piece and lighting designer Ted Roberts highlights the musical’s personal scale with his extensive use of specials that illuminate individual figures surrounded by darkness.

Think of it this way: if Once were a person, you wouldn’t want to date it. You want a partner—and a narrative—that can commit and move forward. Right?

ONCE Book by Enda Walsh. Music and lyrics by Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová. Based on the motion picture written and directed by John Carney. An Arts Club production. At the Arts Club’s Granville Island Stage on Saturday, June 23. Continues until July 29.

Tickets.

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About Colin Thomas

Colin Thomas is a Vancouver-based editor, an award-winning playwright, and an established theatre critic. Colin helps writers unlock the full potential of their novels, short stories, screenplays, and children's books.

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