By Jenna Wos, Staff Writer
In Ireland, a bartender serves me a glass of pinot grigio, and I place a dollar in the tip jar, making conversation with him. I notice the dingy mirrors in wooden frames hanging on the walls and the checkered red and beige tile floor. On either side of the bar, there is a set of dark wooden doors with yellow stained-glass windows. On opposite sides of the room, set up next to chairs, there are acoustic guitars, violins, a banjo, mandolin, ukulele, accordion, cello, cajon, and harmonica. The players step out of the crowd, grab their instruments, and begin to perform Irish folk songs. They jig around as the bar-goers clap along.
Does it sound like I’m standing in a traditional Irish pub? I am, except I’m not. Really, I’m on stage at the Fisher Theatre in Detroit.
“Once,” a Tony and Grammy Award-winning musical, has a simple set that doubles as a bar before the show and during intermission, allowing audience members a closer look at the pieces that create the minimalist play. As they purchase their drinks then find their seats, the 12-piece orchestra – whose musicians step in as characters – takes the stage.
Set in Dublin, “Once” tells the story of unnamed Guy meets unnamed Girl. Guy, a broken-hearted vacuum-fixer and musician who has lost inspiration, is at the pub to perform one last time. He plays his guitar and sings “Leave,” a distressing song dedicated to his heart-breaker who has moved away.
Enter Girl, a Czech who hears Guy’s song. Coincidentally, her Hoover is broken and she plays piano, so they make a deal – if he fixes her vacuum, she will help him with his music.
For the first time together, Guy and Girl sing “Falling Slowly.” With the lyrics “I don’t know you – but I want you – all the more for that” and “falling slowly – eyes that know me – and I can’t go back,” the song is expressive of the beginning of their relationship.
Throughout the play, we get a taste of Irish and Czech culture and learn of their complicated histories that carry into the present: Guy’s relationships with his father and ex-girlfriend, and Girl’s relationships with her mother, daughter, and husband. Despite these obstacles, they work together to create an album, inevitably developing feelings for each other.
In “Gold,” the lyrics “if a door be closed – then a row of homes start building – and tear your curtains down – for sunlight is like gold” and “I’m walking on moonbeams – and staring out to sea” are inspirational when Guy sings them and also reveal that he has fallen in love with Girl.
Later, we learn that Girl, too, is in love with Guy. She says “I love you,” only she does so in Czech, so he doesn’t understand. Because of their intricate pasts, they are never able to confess their love for each other, leaving the audience feeling empty and dissatisfied.
The last two songs in the show are reprises of “Gold” and “Falling Slowly,” which carry contrasting meanings to the ones they had formerly. This time, “Gold” is performed acapella by all the cast members. Sung quietly and at a slower tempo, you can hear them breathe in unison, giving the song a somber tone – the complete opposite of its intention before.
Finally, Guy and Girl sing “Falling Slowly.” More members of the orchestra play their instruments and sing, building the song as Guy and Girl play for the last time together. This time, the lyrics “when you have suffered enough – and warred with yourself – it’s time that you’ve won” and “words fall through me – and always fool me – and I can’t react” are more relevant to the close of their relationship. The song ends in long, drawn-out notes – a chilling dissonance falling over the theatre.
“Once” takes the audience on a complex journey through a simple performance. Though the lyrics are few, they are poetic. When coupled with the emotion-evoking music that ranges from uplifting to haunting, the songs carry much meaning in this equally comical, inspiring, and heart-wrenching play.