ONCE_2014_MELB_reviewMelbourne’s Princess Theatre hosts the Australian Premiere of Once, a musical adaptation of the film written and directed by John Carney. Boasting various awards for its motion picture and Broadway incarnations, I anticipated a quality experience. The performance – through its slender story – left my guest and I nonplussed; it didn’t take very long to realize that this show is all about the music.

The tag line used to promote the show “His music needed one thing. Her.” gives a fair outline of the story. An Irish singer-guitarist busking on the streets of Dublin (known only as Guy, Tom Parsons) is about to give up on his music after one last performance, when a direct Czech woman with a love of piano (Girl, Madeleine Jones) hears his songs. Moved by his words, she becomes Guy’s motivator and champion of his music, driving him on to pursue his musical dreams and share his songs with the world.

Of course, in a romantic musical, there are problems to overcome. Heartbreak makes Guy’s music painful for him now. He pines for his muse, an ex-girlfriend who lives in New York and has a new boyfriend. Girl is a young mother with an estranged husband. However, through the power of music, and the sweet combination of the voices of Parsons and Jones, Guy and Girl find their way to some harmonious musical moments.

I was disheartened to find that Enda Walsh’s book for Once makes it very difficult to believe in a romantic relationship between Guy and Girl. The development of their relationship over the five days of the action evokes more the commitment and complexity of a pre-teen crush rather than heartfelt emotion between two people with baggage. I think it is this which makes the story so unsatisfying; moments of union and separation are so neat, lacking emotional force as a result.

When I think of couples in love, I recall a good friend’s groom’s speech where he remarked that falling in love was one thing, but the “fighting and clawing” to stay in love was something to be done every day. There’s none of that effort from Guy and Girl as they weren’t allowed to get their hands dirty and fight for each other. What the programme refers to as “a love story unfinished” seems more like a love story unstarted.

Characters in the ensemble are even more lightly sketched, and generally presented only as figures of fun. The Irish and Czech characters assembled for Guy and Girl’s band are all handy with their musical instruments, which is the main way in which they relate to each other. The humour between them was well-received in some parts of the final preview’s audience, and met stony silence in others.

Of the minor characters, Girl’s mother Baruška (Susan-ann Walker) gets to deliver an intense monologue with a darkly comic warning, and housemate Reza (Amy Lehpamer) impresses with her violin passion and matter-of-fact confidence. It is unfortunate that yet again we see women confined to those stereotypical roles of mother and whore, and I don’t know how women continue to put up with this in 2014.

Attractive features of the production include Bob Crowley’s set design, replicating an Irish pub which the audience are free to explore before the show and join a singalong with the cast. With its worn floor tiles and wood panels, it looks every bit the venerable local public house for conviviality and craic. Most of the action doesn’t occur in the pub, and Natasha Katz’s lighting design smartly segments the stage to establish other locations. Under the direction of John Tiffany and Derek Walker, changes of scene are all smoothly done by the performers and keep the action rolling along smartly.

To be sure, to be sure, it is the music and singing which shine in this version of Once. This quality is clearly demonstrated by the successes of other productions, which include Grammy, Tony, Olivier and Academy awards. Combining Irish music stalwarts of violin and accordion with less-traditional strings and instruments, under the musical direction of Kellie Dickerson, the offerings overflowed with Celtic spirit, and when combined with the vocals of Parsons and Jones, were sometimes quite moving.

From the differing reactions of aspects of the house on this preview night to the humour and music, Once seems likely to divide audiences. Those who love musicals will most likely find that component satisfying. More casual fans of the art form who derive their sustenance from character might find that listening to a CD is far cheaper and about as enjoyable.

Princess Theatre, Spring Street, Melbourne
Season currently continues to 31 December 2014
Bookings: 1300 111 011 or online at: www.oncemusical.com.au

For more information, visit: www.oncemusical.com.au for details.

Image: Madeleine Jones and Tom Parsons in Once – photo by Jeff Busby

Review: Jason Whyte