Gili Roskies and Adrian Glynn McMorran in Once at Granville Island Stage. (photo by Emily Cooper)
Walking into the Arts Club Theatre’s Granville Island Stage and seeing a bar set up on stage is usually not a big deal. But when it turns out that the bar is a working bar for theatre-goers, well, that is a nice twist.
Not only can you go up on stage to buy your drink, the cast of the play (musicians all) hang out and mingle and eventually start playing instruments as patrons stand about chatting. Then, as audience members make their way to their seats, just a few movements on stage get the set ready for the first scene.
Once is set in Dublin’s music scene and opens with the male lead, known only as “Guy” (Adrian Glynn McMorran), singing and playing guitar despondently in a bar. “Girl” (Jewish community member Gili Roskies) admires his singing and starts up a conversation about his songs. He explains that he wrote them for a girlfriend who left him and moved to New York, and now he’s giving up his music and devoting his time to working as a vacuum salesman. Girl convinces him to fix a vacuum she has and, as payment, she’ll play piano for him. They end up at a music store where the two sing the breakout hit “Falling Slowly.” Girl, a Czech immigrant, cannot afford her own piano, so the music storeowner lets her use his.
After that, Girl insinuates herself into Guy’s life. She bugs him to go after his former girlfriend and win her back with his songs, she signs him up for an open-mic night and she even makes an appointment with a banker on Guy’s behalf to get a loan to book a recording studio. (Though broke, with no collateral, Guy gets the loan by playing a song for the banker. Ahhh, if only that happened in real life.)
As to be expected, the two fall for each other, but keep things platonic, as Girl is actually married and might reconcile with her estranged husband; and, eventually, Guy sees the possibility of getting back with his girlfriend, too.
Despite the romantic settings and interactions between the two main characters, I was never fully engrossed in this play. I didn’t find the chemistry between Guy and Girl to be that captivating and I think I got somewhat annoyed by the mixed messages and constant back-and-forth of emotions demonstrated by Girl for Guy. Guy’s feelings for her were clear; Girl was all over the map.
There are also several long, convoluted stories that seem only to end in lame jokes, and some odd dance routines whose choreography I just didn’t get. In this case, as with many productions, I found the backstory more interesting.
Once is based on a 2007 Irish film in the musical drama genre. The sleeper hit was made for only $150,000 US and grossed more than $23 million US. Part of its success was no doubt due to winning audience awards at both the Sundance and Dublin film festivals, the Independent Spirit Award for best foreign film in 2007 and an Academy Award for best original song, “Falling Slowly,” in 2008. The soundtrack was nominated for a Grammy.
The musical did even better, winning eight of 11 Tony nominations on Broadway in 2012, including best musical, as well as a host of other awards for productions around the world.
“Falling Slowly” was written, composed and performed by the film’s co-stars, Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová, specifically for the film and recorded by Hansard’s band, the Frames. Many of the other songs in the production were provided by Hansard and Irglová and gave them material to perform together in the years following the film’s release. The film’s director, John Carney, called Hansard and Irglová his Bogart and Bacall.
Unfortunately, that chemistry is nowhere to be found on stage at the Arts Club. Thankfully, their performance of “Falling Slowly” does justice to the original, and is one of the highlights of the play, as is an a cappella version of the song “Gold,” sung by the entire cast. The voices and musicianship are all of high quality and there is definitely sweetness in this play, but once was enough for me to see it.
Once runs until July 29 at the Arts Club Granville Island Stage. For tickets, visit artsclub.com.
Baila Lazarus is a Vancouver-based writer and principal media strategist at bailalazarus.com.