One of those quiet, understated shows that will sneak up and surprise you, Once () is not exactly a secret, given it won a whopping eight Tony Awards in 2012. And yet, Once remains in the shadow of The Book of Mormon, which won nine Tonys the year before and is regularly heralded as the best new musical of the decade — if not the century.
However, Once is every bit as stirring and audacious — it just registers on a much smaller scale, without the provocative bombast of taking on organized religion. You’ll likely leave the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater every bit as moved as those patrons next door, taking in the touring production of The Book of Mormon in the Opera House.
Certainly you’ll have a renewed faith in the power of music after hearing Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova’s folk score. It’s the music that will surprise most about this show, featuring a book by celebrated Irish playwright Enda Walsh. The focus is on a man, Guy, who is about to give up on his music, until a mysterious woman, Girl, enters the picture and becomes his muse. Soon the pair are making hauntingly beautiful music together, which is all the more powerful because it expresses their love for each other in a way that they never fully realize otherwise. They only allow a few physical manifestations of their love — a fleeting kiss, a tender head-butt — holding back because both are already in complicated relationships. Music becomes the couple’s primary outlet for conveying their feelings toward one another.
And what music it is. Several of these dramatic, folk-inflected rock songs would be chart-toppers if there were any justice in the pop music world — or at least if this were an earlier era when musicals had that kind of mainstream sway. Instead, only “Falling Slowly” made a dent on the charts, and that was before the musical emerged, back when Once was just John Carney’s small indie film from 2007. (“Falling Slowly” won the Oscar for Best Original Song in 2008.) It’s no surprise to learn that both Hansard and Irglova are primarily pop musicians, who previously worked together in the folk-rock duo the Swell Season. The characters Guy and Girl are obviously modeled after the composers, right down to their nationality — Irish for Hansard, Czech for Irglova. The attractive, strong-voiced Stuart Ward and Dani De Waal are superbly cast as Guy and Girl in the touring production.
Every actor in Once plays an instrument, and the ensemble becomes the show’s orchestra, sitting on the edge of Bob Crowley’s set tugging on strings when not part of the central action. And as Guy pursues a career as a recording artist, many in the supporting cast become a ragtag group of musicians backing him in the studio. The effect is as subtly smart and seamless as everything else about this show, including Steven Hoggett’s graceful choreography.
NO DOUBT KEEGAN THEATRE WILL MOUNT A PRODUCTION of Once in coming seasons, since the rock-oriented musical, set in Ireland to boot, is right up the company’s alley. Right now, however, the company is focused on a production of Tennessee Williams’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (). As directed by the company’s married leaders Mark A. Rhea and Susan Marie Rhea, the production puts on full display Keegan’s ability to stage dramatic plays with a large cast in a small space. Of course, the space isn’t quite as small as it was before — this is the first show after Keegan spent a year renovating the former Church Street Theater, slightly expanding the stage and enhancing the theater-going experience with better seats and a better facility all around.
Keegan’s production of Williams’s masterpiece goes a lot further in drawing out the homosexual longing at its root than the famous movie with Elizabeth Taylor and Paul Newman ever did. Yet you still don’t feel the level of sexual anguish in Kevin Hasser’s portrayal of Brick you might expect. Hasser instead makes his character’s flaws all about alcohol and his family’s mendacity, not about his immense regret from having spurned the sexual advances of his high school buddy, who committed suicide shortly thereafter.
Kevin Adams is once again the family patriarch in a Keegan production, though even this fine actor seems to struggle a bit to parse out the nuances in his role as Big Daddy. It’s a quandary shared by most everyone else in the cast, to varying degrees, in this long show — which as a result feels longer than its over three-hour runtime.
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof runs to Aug. 1 at Keegan Theatre, 1742 Church St. NW. Tickets are $35 to $45. Call 703-892-0202 or visit keegantheatre.com.
Once runs to Aug. 16 in Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater. Tickets are $65 to $160. Call 202-467-4600 or visit kennedy-center.org.
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