American audiences fell in love with the Irish sleeper romantic hit Once back in 2007, as did critics and the voters for the Academy Awards, who chose the movie’s song “Falling Slowly” as the Best Song of the year. Five years later, the same thing happened with the Broadway musical adaptation of the John Carney film (now onstage at Florida Studio Theatre’s Gompertz Theatre), which garnered eight Tony Awards in the process.
It might have seemed an unlikely success at first, but the charm of the movie, which centers on a broken-hearted, Dublin vacuum cleaner fixer-upper we meet simply as the busking Guy (Ben Paul Williams) and the Czech émigré (Elizabeth Nestlerode), known as Girl, carries over to the stage version. In fact, this Once maybe adds a bit of its own charm with the concept of having an open pub bar onstage around which not only the leads but the rest of the cast—multitalented musicians all, replacing the usual offstage orchestra with a full complement of guitars, fiddles, accordions and more—help tell a simple but touching and often humorous tale.
Girl enters Guy’s sad life, at a time when he’s about to give up on his dreams of music, with her broken vacuum cleaner and then promptly takes charge. A pianist herself, she encourages him to record his songs and reunite with his ex-girlfriend, while at the same time developing her own feelings for him despite having a small daughter and an absent husband.
She also has a mother (Emily Mikesell), fellow Czech flatmates (Seth Eliser, Sarah Hund and Grant Alan Watkins) and the ability to coerce a music-loving bank manager (Paul Lincoln) into providing Guy with a loan to do a demo record. Provided, that is, she can also persuade music shop owner Billy (Chris Blisset), who’s half in love with her himself, to provide the needed equipment.
If you remember the songs from the movie (“If You Want Me,” “When Your Mind’s Made Up,” “Gold” and more, all either written or co-written by Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova), you’ll be tempted to sing along as the cast (under the music direction of Darren Server) executes them with feeling and vigor. If you haven’t heard them before, you’ll be impressed by their life and spirit.
As Guy, Williams (who played Carl Perkins in FST’s Million Dollar Quartet last season) doesn’t possess quite the raw urgency Hansard showed in the movie role. But he’s certainly sympathetic and likable enough, and the chemistry between him and Nestlerode, as a child-woman who’s both direct and private, works to draw us into their story.
Blisset is a big stage presence as the half-Spanish Billy; James Young a quieter but effective one as Guy’s Da. And the rest of the ensemble rounds out the eccentric Dublin atmosphere with flair.
Once continues through Dec. 31 at the Gompertz; for tickets, call 366-9000 or visit floridastudiotheatre.org.