The rock musical has a troubled history, mainly because the two forms don't play well together. Recent years have witnessed stronger pieces, as songwriters and theater artists have found common ground.
Once, playing this week on tour at the Orpheum Theatre, is an odd creation even in the realm of the rock musical. It's based on a film about a pair of musicians who don't exactly fall in love, but do fall into creating art together.
A film about the process of creation may not seem like the best topic for a full stage musical, but the show's creative team and this production's engaging company create a beguiling, inviting world.
That starts even before the show gets underway. Audience members are invited up onstage to get a closer look at the set and props, including the instruments the company will be playing in a few minutes. The music starts before the lights come down, as the performers show off their musical skills on a series of Irish folk tunes to get warmed up.
The last song of that set becomes the opening of the show, as the main character, Guy, starts to sing a song about heartbreak. From there, the plot is similar to the film's: Guy meets Girl, a Czech immigrant who plays the piano and loves his music. Together, they begin to collaborate, and pick up a ragtag gang of musicians in hopes of making a demo.
The musical also uses music drawn from the film. While Oscar-winner "Falling Slowly" is the most familiar, the Swell Season collaborators (Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova) created a full album, which is drawn on for the show.
The other, and somewhat unexpected, piece of the collaboration comes from book writer Enda Walsh. Walsh is a distinct young Irish voice. His playfulness is fully evident in the script, though his darkness has been pushed to the background (probably for the best).
All of this, along with the engaging staging from director John Tiffany, gives the actors plenty of chances to fully engage us. As Guy, English actor Stuart Ward has a self-effacing charm that makes his sad-sack character plenty lovable. He also does a solid job of adding his own distinct voice to music made famous by another singer.
That goes for Dani de Waal as Girl, too. It's a role that could easily just be the "muse" to the Guy singer, but the role is written, and de Wall plays it, as a fully fledged equal. Her charms are more direct than Ward's, but equally as impressive. The pair also provide terrific chemistry that adds depth to their lost characters.
They are joined by a true ensemble of players, who take on the different roles as required and add to all of the music. For much of the show, the additional players sit to the sides of the stage acting as observers, like an Irish/Czech chorus whose commentary comes out in music.
Overall, Once the musical is a lot like Once the film: an underdog that works through the undeniable charms of the material and its atypical presentation. There are no big production numbers, just a shared sense of community that stretches beyond the stage. There are no superstar turns either, just good honest performances from top to bottom, all working to bring a singular story to life.
IF YOU GO:
910 Hennepin Ave., Minneapolis
For tickets and more information, call 1.800.982.2787 or visit online.