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theatre review

Stuart Ward and Dani de Waal from the Once Tour Company.Joan Marcus

How do you get to the Royal Alexandra? The punchline used to be: rehearse, rehearse, rehearse. These days, however, getting on the historic Toronto theatre's stage is a little easier.

Last year around this time, Mirvish presented an Irish play by Mark O'Rowe called Terminus at the Royal Alex. The audience watched the three-person play set in a grotesquely violent version of modern-day Dublin while sitting on the stage, staring out at three floors of empty seats.

This year, if you arrive early for Once, the romantic new musical set in a gentler version of modern-day Dublin, you can step up on the stage and order a drink in a dingy Irish pub designed by Bob Crowley. The cast of actor-musicians is already up there strumming and fiddling and singing Irish or Eastern European toe-tappers.

As you gulp down your Guinness (or bottle of water), you can look out at the 1,497 seats filling with the individuals that will form a single audience. It's an awe-inspiring view in a different way than Terminus was.

There are shows that aim to fill every space – and others that leave empty seats for the imagination. Despite the differences in approach to audience, Terminus was a word-drunk play that aimed to pack a punch into every sentence, every phrase, while Once, adapted from the 2006 indie movie of the same name by Enda Walsh, is the rare Broadway musical that is characterized by absence and leaves room for silence.

A Guy (Stuart Ward) and a Girl (Dani de Waal) meet on the streets of Dublin. He's busking; she's listening intently. She has a broken Hoover; he has a broken heart. They have the special skills needed to fix or fill one another's vacuums.

While Guy and Girl talk very little in Enda Walsh's script, they sing to each other a lot – and communicate less through the lyrics than the music underneath it.

As it turns out, she has more baggage than he does – and, as they set about recording an album together for him to send to his ex-girlfriend in New York, it all gets unpacked in the studio.

The primary appeal of Once comes from the music by Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova, who starred in the movie. Falling Slowly is the hit, which won them an Oscar, but there are at least half a dozen decent tunes here sung by the cast who accompany themselves on piano, guitar and fiddle. When the other characters are not in a scene, they sit in chairs on the side of the stage.

Once is set in an Ireland that is post-Celtic Tiger – it still has the new immigrants that flocked there, but has lost its economic mojo. There's a music store owner worried about his business going bankrupt; and a Czech fast-food server yearning for a promotion so that he will stop flipping burgers. It's an odd beast – a recessionary musical that isn't escapist. It is emotional, though, and a heartfelt Ward and quirky de Waal pull at heartstrings with plaintive singing and sideways looks of love.

On a repeat viewing of Once, the single dimension of the supporting characters in Walsh's script was more apparent – especially among Girl's Eastern European pals. But I suppose there's a reason why so many of the characters don't have names. You have to listen to the way they play their instruments or watch the way they move (in Steven Hoggett's dreamy choreography) to fill them out. The talented cast aren't just actor-musicians, they're also actor-dancers – and there's something achingly human about the way they do these things with an air of authenticity rather than polish.

I felt I learned as much about the bank manager (or perhaps the actor Benjamin Magnuson) from the way he lifted his hands during a song, or shredded the bow on his cello in When Your Mind's Made Up, as I did from any of his dialogue.

I'm not sure how such an intimate play or production (or, maybe, concert) works from the back rows of a large theatre that dates from a time when Toronto's population was smaller but more in sync in its entertainment interests. From the fifth row, however, I swooned for Once a second time around.