Love Sung Slow: A Charming Musical Suffers from Some Slow Dialogue Pacing in Once at Playhouse Square

If you happen to see any young female musicians walking around town with vacuum cleaners strapped to their backs, they may be seeking divine romantic intervention.

Sound unlikely? Not after you see the magical, endearing and sometimes cloyingly precious Once, now at Playhouse Square. This touring production of the show that was adapted from a small indie film has a barrelful of charms, and it knows it. So it can come off annoyingly smug at times.

But the Irish music and lyrics by the film's original on-screen stars, Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova, are just flat-out lovely. And even though the book by Enda Walsh balances some sharp and witty lines with an equal number of predictable clunkers, the wispy story remains just innocent enough to pass muster.

And the vacuum cleaner? Well, that's how the recently jilted piano-playing Girl from Czechoslovakia meets the down-on-his-luck guitar-strumming Guy from Dublin. When he admits to rehabbing Hoovers for a living, she immediately produces a vacuum for him to fix. (She has carpeting?)

Anyhow...ta, da! And to pay him back for the appliance fix, she offers to pound the keyboard. So off they go to the music store of a friend, Billy, who considers Girl an angel (yeah, literally, sort of) and sees Boy as a threat.

In short, it's an urban fairy story overlaid with lyrics that repeatedly reinforce that ethereal unreality. In "If You Want Me," G&G croon "I can't tell dreams from truth." While they're lost in their romantic haze, some other more grounded characters, such as Girl's no-nonsense mother, try to keep the proceedings from floating off into the rafters.

The play uses its Czech connection to give the plot some edge, but it only works at times. When the Girl, her mother and others speak in English, their words are sometimes translated into Czech on a horizontal strip above the unit barroom set. This conveys the foreign aspect of these characters without being too intrusive.

But when the wacky Czech musicians show up at a recording studio to make beautiful Irish music, their eccentricities are too obvious and, frankly, not nearly eccentric enough to justify the recording engineer's wary reaction.

What works sublimely in this production, however, are the actor-musicians who accompany themselves on all the songs without a pit orchestra. This begins even before the curtain for Act 1, as the performers mingle with the audience on stage while pounding out some high-energy Irish foot-stompers. (Get in your seat, or up on stage, early.)

Also effective is the stage movement engineered by Steven Hoggett and director John Tiffany. Swinging in and out of different settings with minimal and elegant moves, the story unfolds as smooth and sweet as a sip of Bailey's Irish Cream.

As Guy, Stuart Ward is nicely rough-edged and sings with passion, and Dani de Waal makes an adorable Girl, skating perilously close to being just too cute for the room.

But they indulge in some dialog scenes, especially in the second act, that are so torturously slow you wish you brought a book to read during the hugely over-extended pauses. Perhaps this arises from a desire to stretch a flimsy concept into a two-act play that justifies an intermission.

Evan Harrington as the sizable Billy has a faux-gruff manner that works at times, but he overplays his comic bits. And Raymond Bokhour as the Boy's Da never seems to emerge from his stolid exterior.

Still and all, if you like your adult fairy tales served up with some tuneful music (including the Oscar-winning song "Falling Slowly"), then Once may be enough for you.

Through Nov. 24 at Playhouse Square, 1615 Euclid Avenue, 216-241-6000,

About The Author

Christine Howey

Christine Howey has been reviewing theater since 1997, first at Cleveland Free Times and then for other publications including City Pages in Minneapolis, MN and The Plain Dealer. Her blog, Rave and Pan, also features her play reviews. Christine is a former stage actor and director, primarily at Dobama Theatre...
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