REVIEW: ‘Once’ warms you up

Jan. 22, 2014 @ 10:11 AM

Like a hot toddy on a cold winter’s night, which this week is full of, “Once” warms you up and leaves you feeling happy. The tour of the hit Broadway show is at the Durham Performing Arts Center through Sunday. Opening night Tuesday was a blustery one outside, but inside the show started before curtain time – in fact, there was no curtain – by opening up the on-stage bar to a few lucky patrons.

The show itself likens to a worthy night out at a bar – great music, good company, a little drama, salty language, bonds formed, passes made, love ignited, futures discussed. The ensemble is more than any sort of background -- they are the on-stage musicians that bring the audience into the scene with musical notes, a good placed foot stomp and of course the story. The story, based on the Irish film of the same name, is about Irish street musician Guy (Stuart Ward), whose confidence in a musical future wavers until his chance meeting with Girl (Dani de Waal), a Czech woman who encourages him as she displays her own confidence, too. Her Czech flatmates and family – who are also among the on-stage musicians – are lively and a welcome diverse element. Who knew a foot-stomping Irish song and a foot-stomping Czech song would have so much in common. But it works, and it’s unexpected.
“Once” won’t be for every audience member – there aren’t giant, colorful big numbers that wow you in the way splashy musicals do. It doesn’t need any. Instead it delivers heartfelt acoustic music that makes you forget the cold winds blowing outside. It makes you wonder if you should have just gotten on with it and taken a risk, too, like Guy. It also makes you laugh, with lines like the good people of Dublin being so because of “all those potatoes.” It is serious as a Czech, as the lines go, but doesn’t take itself too seriously.
The set – often a pub but also a music store, a vacuum shop and an apartment – keeps the same design. There is a long horizontal mirror that lets us see the performers in multiple ways. The big mirror is surrounded by smaller mirrors that make the set design work for every scene, an accomplishment. With dimmed lighting, even a performing arts center can feel intimate, especially when you’re watching performers like Ward and de Waal. When Ward sings “Gold,” it’s a moment when the rest of the audience fades away. It’s just you experiencing this song, this show, this night. “Once” conveys a warmth you’ll carry well into this new year.
If you need more convincing, “Once” won eight Tony Awards including Best Musical, as well as a Grammy Award for Best Musical Theater Album. Rightly so.

WHAT: “Once”

WHEN: Through Sunday
WHERE: Durham Performing Arts Center
123 Vivian St., Durham
TICKETS: $35-$110