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Once is a real heart-squeezing, ear-pleasing show.

Cylla von Tiedemann

4 out of 4 stars

Title
Once
Written by
Enda Walsh
Directed by
John Tiffany
Actors
Ian Lake, Trish Lindstrom
Music
Glen Hansard, Marketa Irglova
Venue
Ed Mirvish Theatre
City
Toronto

I've seen Once a few times now with a few different casts – and my enthusiasm for the musical remains strong after seeing it with Canadian actor-musicians for the first time at the Ed Mirvish theatre. It's a real heart-squeezing, ear-pleasing show – and the best commercial work of art to come out of the great recession.

Based on the 2006 film of the same name, Once concerns an Irish busker battling depression and a Czech single mother fighting the recession who meet on the streets of Dublin – and then transcend their circumstances and change their outlooks by making beautiful music together.

Whether this Guy and this Girl – they aren't given names – will make that beautiful music in the romantic sense is up in the air until the end. But all Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova's swoony songs from the movie are here; indeed, their Oscar-winning tune Falling Slowly is here, twice.

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The creative team that has adapted the screenplay for the stage is top-notch, too.

Enda Walsh, a real genius of an Irish playwright whose non-musical, non-naturalistic plays like The Walworth Farce and The New Electric Ballroom you must also check out, has crafted a clever script – giving Guy and Girl's first meeting an absurdist edge, then adding in crowd-pleasing comic caricatures to flesh the show out.

John Tiffany, the English director behind impressive shows like Black Watch, is the director – and he's set the action of Once in an Irish pub that you can actually visit if you arrive early for the show, to mingle with the instrument-playing cast and have a drink.

Meanwhile, the movement by Steven Hoggett, another in-demand Englishman, is subtly gorgeous. I particularly love the choreography for If You Want Me, where Girl and two other female characters wander around dreamily in headphones, tracing the contours of the aching holes in their lives.

I particularly liked this with Girl as played by Trish Lindstrom – who has previously showcased her offbeat physical acting in the lead role of Alice Through the Looking Glass at Stratford Festival last summer. A little less cutesy, a little more confidently Czech than other Girls I've seen, Lindstrom banishes the manic pixie dream Girl aspect from the part quickly and makes this musical play as much about her absentee husband as Guy's overseas sweetie.

As Guy, Ian Lake takes the role darker than I've seen it before; he's not just a handsome, sorrowful singer. His brand of heartbreak contains a hint of off-putting petulance that gives his journey an intriguing edge. His voice may not be as strong as other Guys I've seen, but his characterization is rock solid.

In the supporting cast, Brandon McGibbon and Emily Lukasik have the right comic bounce as a couple of musical Czechs; and Laurie Murdoch as Guy's grieving Irish Da is a real love, whether singing, playing his mandolin or simply sitting melancholicly in a chair.

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My fondness for Once doesn't blind me to its flaws. I've never really enjoyed the characters of Andrej, who dreams of a promotion to area manager at a fast-food chain; or Billy, a karate-chopping music store owner whose business and back are failing. I've always found them over-the-top, no more so than ever in this production with Nathan Carroll and Stephen Guy-McGrath's high-pitched performances in the roles.

There were a couple of sloppy moments at the opening matinee, too – a missed mark or two, an accidental projection, some choreography that felt canned rather than organic.

I wonder if this would be the case had Tiffany and Hoggett come to Toronto to work on the production during rehearsals, rather than sent their associates?

These are the kind of observations that come from over-familiarity with a production, though. I still cried at the end. I'm still affixing four stars to this review.

The scene that stuck with me this time around, however, was the one between Girl and a bank manager (an excellent Jon-Alex MacFarlane), who is reluctant to loan her and Guy a couple thousands euros to record an album. Girl asks the bank manager why he is proud to be Irish, and he responds, immediately, "Our culture."

In a great little propaganda speech inserted by Walsh, Girl goes on: "For an island this tiny to make all these writers and poets and musicians! This is insane. And yet on this little rock in the middle of the ocean you make men and women who for centuries can speak and sing of what it is to be a person. Yeats, Swift, Wilde, Beckett, Joyce, Van Morrison, Enya, the fantastic people who gave the world Riverdance!"

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At the packed opening of a new franchise of a Broadway hit – and on the day when the rest of the city world was obsessed with the Oscars – there was something about this message that didn't quite land right. Go see this show and enjoy the Canadian performers – but I do wish there was the similar investment – public and private – in Canadian Glen Hansards and Enda Walshs and John Tiffanys and Stephen Hoggetts, and we were all so reflexively proud of Canadian culture.

Once continues to May 31. Visit www.mirvish.com.

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