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Theatre Review: "Once" Another Part of 'Best Fall Theatre Season' in Years

Add Once, touring to the Aronoff Center through Nov. 23, to the handful of shows (An Iliad at Ensemble, The Birds at Cincinnati Shakespeare, Speech and Debate at CCM Drama) that have made  this the best fall season of theater here in years.
 
Based on the hit screen romance from a few years back that captured a very few days in the lives of a  scruffy Guy (Stuart Ward) and a Czech, fairy-like Girl (Dani de Waal), strangers are brought together by  music. 
 
It’s not that the love story is transporting – it’s that Once transports the audience to a Dublin pub. You’ll leave the show wanting to book tickets to Ireland.
 
Once is a just about perfect piece of environmental theater (which has to be what won the show the Tony Award for Best Musical).
 
Get there early – the music starts 15 minutes before curtain – and audience members are invited to mingle on stage as the musicians play and sing with Irish verve. 
 
The pub is a semi-circle that fills the stage, but it’s part of the show’s spell that it feels intimate not enormous. The setting is dark-ish and warm feeling, the kind of place you want to stay with friends till the wee hours, listening to music, making new friends, laughing, watching the drama of life play out. Did  I mention it has a functioning bar? Buy a pint, take it to your seat. (At intermission, too.)
 
I don’t know if the play inside the musical works in the furthest reaches of the expanse of the Aronoff – it’s a very small show – but the music does. 
 
A dozen actor/musicians play an orchestra of instruments – mandolin, banjo, concertina, ukulele(!) – along with more expected rock band instruments as they sing and play and stomp. When the terrific ensemble isn’t united in music, they play friends and family of the two would-be lovers as the action moves, with the minimums of props – tables, chairs, a piano that rolls in and out – to a music store, the Girl’s home filled with extended family, a bank, a recording studio, a Dublin rooftop. 
 
The recording studio is important, because the whole point is that the Girl bucks up the Guy, who’s depressed because his girlfriend has walked out on him, moved to New York and found someone new, and because he’s getting nowhere as a songwriter.
 
Now that he’s miserable, he writes captivating love songs, like the indie folk/rock “Falling Slowly,” the break-out hit form the 2006 film. The plan is to record his songs, get it in front of producers and make him an overnight international sensation.
 
Because the show is a fairytale – why not? Because it’s an Irish fairytale, love is bittersweet and true love isn’t as easy as instant stardom. 
 
If the show’s spell works it’s magic on you, you either won’t notice or not care that “Once” is about 15 minutes too long (and that’s being kind) and that the second act doesn’t dramatically fulfill the promise of the first. 
 
Not perfect? What is? Once is probably going to stand as the entry from the current Broadway touring season that’s going to stay with you – and warm you up inside every time you think about it.
 
Once, through Nov. 23. Procter & Gamble Hall, Aronoff Center for the Arts, 650 Walnut St., Downtown Cincinnati. Tickets: $29 and up. 513-621-2787 or www.cincinnatiarts.org.
 
Written by Jackie Demaline, RCN Arts
 
Photo provided
 
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