Once is the word that starts many a fairy tale, and that’s what the 2006 movie “Once” and the 2013 Tony-winning Best Musical based on it are.
This isn’t one of those Grimm stories, though, where witches eat kids and wind up being oven-baked themselves. That’s something you would see at the Lyric Opera.
While Irish, “Once” veers only slightly toward Shane MacGowan territory, where the sweet melody has bitter Guinness-fueled lyrics.
The musical – which is now playing at the Oriental Theatre through Oct. 27- is a bit Disney, as told through Irish eyes and without any dragons, castles or somebody rotten getting in the way.
An amiable evening, if you get to the theater a half hour before curtain, you can even get on stage to mingle with the cast, all of whom are musicians and who were playing a mix of gypsy and Irish music opening night.
“Once” is an imaginary Ireland – a kind tourists picture – where everybody is musical and friendly, even if all seems a tad melancholy (which is a secret reason many visit there – and just as many if not more leave).
“Once” touches on how immigrants are part of the mix in Ireland – but not on the tension that can cause in any country where people from poorer places come to work. (You can almost seem some American Hollywood type wanting to remake this, set it in Los Angeles, and have J-Lo play the girl.)
The movie “Once” had its shaggy dog charms as it followed a budding, whirlwind relationship between a mopey Irish busker who got dumped by his gal pal and who lives with his dad and fixes vacuum cleaners – and a cute Czech immigrant who sells flowers and who needs her vacuum cleaner fixed. And I’m not talking in euphemisms – maybe archetypes though as the two leads don’t even have names – just Guy and Girl.
In the stage version, this pauper of a prince meets his princess-in-exile in a bar, where it seems no one drinks, but everybody plays an instrument.
During a sesiun, he is singing one of the tunes he wrote inspired by breaking up with his ex, who now lives in New York, when in walks the Czech, who is taken with what she hears. They talk, and he’s so bummed he wants to stop playing music and will just work for his Da fixing Hoovers.
Wouldn’t you know it – she needs hers fixed, and has the damn thing with her. She’ll pay him to fix it by playing piano – which, of course she does well – which leads to a duet on the signature song, “Falling Slowly,” the lovely ballad which seems loosely based on the opening bars and lyrics of Smokey Robinson’s “You Really Got A Hold On Me.”
The gal is hooked and decides to help the guy secure a loan so he can record his post-Jackson Browne (in terms of lyrical content and tempo), pre-Mumford & Sons (in terms of crescendos) folk.
The girl lives with her daughter and her mom and a bunch of other musically inclined Czechs. (What gets confusing for a dope like me is that some of the actors play multiple parts. I hate having to pay close attention.)
At the bank, the loan officer is so taken with the guy’s music, he decides it’s worth letting out 2,000 Euro – this is pre-recession Europe and all sorts of rash lending was going on, much like here in the States.
Of course, the loan officer – while he can’t sing – can play guitar.
Next, the guy goes to an open mic night to test out material and plays another of his moody folk tunes, which everybody likes.
Then it was intermission, and you could amble on stage at intermission to grab a beer or a wine. Sorry, there’s no Jameson being poured. And your $5 beer is a Bud Light poured into a plastic tumbler typically used for coffee.
Hey, in Ireland, a lot of pub-goers are drinking Coors Light, but still. I was so taken by the beverages choices I almost tripped the light fantastic, meaning I just about fell on my ass. And not being a coffee-drinker, I spilled on my sweater vest trying to take sips out of the hole in the lid.
Staring up at the ornate ceiling didn’t help me get my bearings. Those oddly well-endowed elephant-like gods or guards hanging out up there scare me.
Anyway, right before Act II started I wanted to say thank you to the usher lady who promptly came to the edge of my row and told a woman to turn off her goddamn smartphone ASAP.
I want to write a musical about this brave, bold usher.
Actually, I want to write a movie where a psycho-killer shoves smartphones up the asses of the self-important types who constantly have to be typing on social media instead of actually being in the moment of where they are in the real world, because their lives must be documented in cyberspace, every goddamn moment.
But I digress.
Back in onstage Ireland, during a rehearsal break, the guy and the gal look out over Dublin, and she tells him in Czech that she loves him. When he asks for a translation, she tells him, “It looks like rain,” which should be a greeting card – a good one – or a John Hiatt song.
It’s the key line of the play. And it isn’t a Midwest thunderstorm but one of those soft Irish rains she’s talking about.
The next day, the guy and the gal and their musician buddies – including a metal-loving Czech drummer – have a studio for 24 hours. Of course, the reluctant producer is amazed at how good the mopey guy’s song is. In fact, the way this guy is encouraged throughout the show, you would think he was a kindergartener from Naperville. But he’s Irish and unsure of himself.
In fact, the girl on several occasions has to remind him to lighten up a bit. As she puts it at one point, “Do you enjoy being Irish?” – which those of us of that persuasion can tell you often involves being happy and sad at the same time.
The girl plays one of her songs. The guy’s smitten, too, and wants her to go to New York with him – which would be really awkward if you think about it, with the ex there already.
She says her estranged husband wants to get back together. The guy decides he will split for America to pursue his folksy dream. Thanks to a wad of cash from his Da – who is duly impressed by a CD of his kid’s music – the guy can.
And wouldn’t you know it? The guy’s ex wants back in the game, too.
The show ends with a parting gift of an upright piano from the guy delivered to the Czech’s humble dwelling. He’s in New York and they sing “Falling Slowly” once more, long distance.
So the guy doesn’t get the Czech girl.
What’s refreshing in this tale is, in terms of the heart, the leads don’t give into their loins, but learn about love from each other and, past the fairy tale lives they’ve led during the course of the few days on display – behave like reasonable adults.
There is no villain here to tempt anybody to do something wrong-headed or ill-advised. And in this day and age, being sensible is almost downright rebellious.
Pulling this off is a likeable cast that for the most part underplays this material – while playing instruments – preventing the night from becoming an overly sticky Valentine.
NOTE: If you’re a suburbanite heading down to the Oriental by car, be mindful about where to park. You get the discounted InterParking rate of $21 only at the Washington and Randolph garage. If you go to the InterPark across Dearborn from the Goodman, you pay $35. Turns out each theater has its own specific discounted lot.