Once

ArtsWatch Weekly: dance of life

From Scheharazade spinning stories to a 6-year-old spinning a galaxy, a whirl of creative energy keeps Oregon in the dance

DOES ANY LITERARY TALE DEAL MORE DIRECTLY with the power of storytelling than the story of Scheherazade? The visier’s daughter created a tapestry of words that saved her life, surviving for a thousand and one nights by spinning a string of stories so fascinating that the tyrant who had planned to kill her was compelled to grant a stay of execution night after night so she could tell the ending of each unfinished tale the following night. Scheherazade’s tale of tales fascinated the composer Rimsky-Korsakov, whose music for it in turn fascinated the late Portland choreographer Dennis Spaight, who created a ballet to it in 1990 for Oregon Ballet Theatre. Now OBT is in the midst of its first revival of Spaight’s story ballet since 1993.

Oregon Ballet Theatre’s visual phantasmagoria Scheherazade. Photo: Yi Yin 

Spaight’s version of the Scheherazade tale, which was something of a Portland all-star collaboration with sets by the celebrated painter Henk Pander, costumes by the visionary theatrical designer/director Ric Young, and lighting by the masterful Peter West, is the anchor of OBT’s thirtieth anniversary season-opening program, and Martha Ullman West, in her ArtsWatch review Wit, speed, a blast from the past, declares it a “grand entertainment.” She continues: “I have never seen Scheherazade better-performed than it was on opening night, and that’s saying something.”

But Scheherazade, Ullman West stresses, is only part of the story. The OBT dancers’ performances of William Forsythe’s In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated and George Balanchine’s Stravinsky Violin Concerto are equally distinguished: “It’s brilliant programming, …. Each ballet is a gift to the audience, and a gift to the dancers as well, offering them opportunities to stretch and grow, hone their technique, and refine their artistry.”

Brian Simcoe in William Forsythe’s “In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated” at Oregon Ballet Theatre. Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

The program has three more performances, Thursday through Saturday in Keller Auditorium. After that, who knows what Scheherazade’s story-hungry tyrant might do?

Continues…

Once Upon a Time in Dublin

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

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.

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.