Enter Dani De Waal. (And for effect, Ms. De Waal, please make your entrance from the audience, under spotlight.)
Truth is, Stone and Hyak aren’t even on the same cloud with De Waal, who’s back captivating Chicagoland audiences in the Broadway tour of Once, 2012’s Tony Award-winning best musical that also had a stupendous Chicago run in 2013, brought back by Broadway in Chicago for just a week.
DeWaal is the serious (“I’m always serious; I’m Czech”) and driven source of inspiration to a new friend she meets on the street in present-day Dublin, a depressed singer-songwriter-Hoover repairman (played on opening night in Chicago by the terrific Alex Nee and in alternate performances by Ryan Link and Stuart Ward).
Leading up to DeWaal’s dramatic entrance, “Once” begins with an Irish hootenanny attended by the show’s early-comers, effectively transforming Chicago’s Cadillac Palace into a Dublin pub. The sing-along showcases on-stage musicians who eventually become characters (and sometimes clever stagehands) as the unnamed Guy/Girl story unfolds. (Book by Enda Walsh. Direction by John Tiffany.)
Guy enters as dejected, enigmatic and wanting to scrap the “fookin’ beautiful” songs he’s written for a past girlfriend who moved to New York. Girl finds him singing, refuses to let him quit and, over the course of five days, transforms his life into one that includes music, love, hope and a freshly cut demo CD of his songs. It’s based on the award-winning 2006 movie, summarized here.
Ten minutes into the production, it’s clear Guy would only be giving up his music over the dead bodies of that performance’s patrons. Ward’s driving rendition of the show’s first song, “Leave,” followed quickly by his and DeWaal’s cabaret-worthy duet in the production’s signature song, “Falling Slowly,” illustrate how a first-rate musical about musicians requires its cast to be ultra-talented quadruple threats.
Indeed, each member of this gifted ensemble is at once a quality musician, singer, actor and dancer. Evan Harrington is the hilariously awkward music shop owner; Scott Waara is Guy’s Da; Tina Stafford is Girl’s mom; Benjamin Magnuson is the maligned gay banker; and Matt DeAngelis, John Steven Gardner, Link, Zander Meisner, Erica Spyres and Erica Swindell play assorted roles.
Together, however, this ensemble acts as one—performing on piano, guitar, fiddle, banjo, cello, ukulele, drums, mandolin and accordion while moving, some might say dancing, in mesmerizing synchronicity. In concert with Bob Crowley’s first-rate unit set featuring mirrors on the back wall, the ensemble’s visual effect delivers an understated, elegant companion to the production’s powerful songbook by Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova.
Once is, in truth, a series of powerful paradoxes that delivers: haunting, lyrical, strong, vulnerable, funny, sad, bawdy, powerfully hopeful reality wrapped in a love story that ends honestly and unresolved, yet all together satisfying.
Everyone should see this splendid show at least once, probably twice. And this reviewer finds that the third time is, indeed, a charm.
“Once” performs through June 7 at the Cadillac Palace, 151 W. Randolph Street, Chicago. More information and tickets ($30 to $95, plus fees) are available at online here or by calling (800) 775-2000.