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Once Upon a Time in Dublin

Wondrous music tempers an overstuffed story in Broadway Rose’s "Once."

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Rough-edged and exquisite, the 2007 movie musical Once didn’t create a romance—it captured a romance. Starring Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová as musicians on a song-fueled odyssey through Dublin, the film had a haunting realism that was deepened by the chemistry of its stars and the subtle storytelling of director John Carney, who often seemed to be filming a real relationship, rather than staging scenes.

The same can’t be said of Once the stage musical. The play (which won several Tony Awards in 2012) clutters the story with clunky melodrama and juvenile jokes, suggesting that book writer Enda Walsh was afraid that for audiences, recreating one of the most touching love stories of the twenty-first century wouldn’t be enough.

Musically engaged: Marissa Neitling and Morgan Hollingsworth in “Once” at Broadway Rose Theatre Company. Photo: Craig Mitchelldyer.

In its production of Once — directed and choreographed by Isaac Lamb — Broadway Rose battles Walsh’s misunderstanding of the movie. Nothing short of cutting half the dialogue and half of the characters could have fully redeemed the play, but the film’s spirit lives on in the performances of Morgan Hollingsworth and Marissa Neitling (as the lead characters, referred to simply as “Guy” and “Girl”), whose musical gifts repeatedly save the show from crumbling under the weight of Walsh’s revisions.

While the film starts in a moody frenzy—with the attempted theft of Guy’s guitar case—the play begins with a packed stage. Eventually, the ensemble falls away and Guy is left playing a tormented tune called “Leave” (the songs are by Hansard and Irglová) to an empty street. Brooding over his ex-girlfriend and his fizzling music career, he decides to abandon his guitar—until, that is, the voice of Girl calls out to him from the audience, offering encouragement and companionship when he needs it most.

Music bridges the cultural gulf between Guy and Girl (he’s Irish, she’s Czech). After a few scenes of chitchat, she’s playing piano and he’s accompanying her on the guitar—and eventually, they assemble a band for a 24-hour album-recording session. Musically and emotionally, they mesh, but Guy is pining for his ex and Girl may reunite with her absent husband. We’re left to wonder if these characters are soulmates who are missing their moment, or if fate has united them simply so they can soothe one another’s spirits as they prepare for the next chapter of their lives.

The film savored that ambiguity. Hansard and Irglová made magic together, but it was a magic awkward enough to raise the possibility that Guy and Girl might be meant for others. The play, by contrast, goes in the opposite direction, cranking up the yearning to grindingly operatic levels, especially in a cringe-worthy scene where Guy desperately begs Girl to move with him to New York.

Even worse is Walsh’s grating sense of humor. Did we really need a satirical subplot involving one member of the band goading another with a goofy, anti-capitalist rant? Or a running gag about a drummer (Dustin Fuentes) drinking too much coffee? Hardly, but that didn’t stop Walsh from cramming them awkwardly into the script.

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Cast members of the musical Once at Broadway Rose. Photo: Craig Mitchelldyer.

But Once is more than the sum of its flaws. While the story has changed, the music remains and the actors perform it with a force that makes it feel new. The play commands your attention whenever a showstopping musical moment arrives, like Hollingsworth exploding with energy during “When Your Mind’s Made Up” (“THERE’S NO POINT TRYING TO CHANGE IT,” he sings/shouts, hammering each syllable).

Once also captures the essence of the creative process. In the film, Guy, Girl and the rest of the band play frisbee on a beach after finishing their album. In a rare change that works, the play keeps the beach, but has the band stare solemnly into the distance while singing an a capella version of the gentle love song “Gold.” It’s a perfect moment because it captures everything the characters feel — the exhaustion and the exhilaration of having been a part of something beautiful.

That scene finds its own identity while honoring what came before. I wish Once did that more often, but I admire Broadway Rose for elevating a flawed play as much as possible. And while Hansard and Irglová are a nearly impossible act to follow, Hollingsworth and Neitling prove themselves to be worthy successors with their tender and ebullient performance of “Falling Slowly,” the film’s most iconic song (it won an Oscar in 2008).

“Take this sinking boat and point it home/We’ve still got time/Raise your hopeful voice, you have a choice/You’ve made it now,” they sing. Those words reflect Guy and Girl’s relationship, but they also describe this production’s greatest achievement: it raises its voice above the clamor of the script and, just often enough, points the boat back toward the emotional purity of the original.

“Once” continues through Oct. 27 at the Broadway Rose New Stage, 12850 SW Grant Avenue, Tigard. Tickets for all remaining performances have sold out.

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Bennett Campbell Ferguson is a Portland-based arts journalist. In addition to writing for Oregon Arts Watch, he writes about plays and movies for Willamette Week and is the editor in chief of the blog and podcast T.H.O. Movie Reviews. He first tried his hand at journalism when he was 13 years old and decided to start reviewing science fiction and fantasy movies – a hobby that, over the course of a decade, expanded into a passion for writing about the arts to engage, entertain, and, above, spark conversation. Bennett is also a graduate of Portland State University (where he studied film) and the University of Oregon (where he studied journalism).

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