‘Once’ is a special story full of heart, love and truly stunning music _lowres

Photo by Joan Marcus -- Stuart Ward and Dani de Waal in 'Once.'

An international sensation, the musical “Once” has captured the hearts of many devoted and passionate fans.

The bittersweet love story of two strangers and the healing power of music will play at the Saenger Theatre beginning March 17.

Based on the 2007 Irish musical film by the same name, the movie was written and directed by John Carney and set in Dublin, Ireland.

The naturalistic drama starred musicians Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová, who composed and performed all of the original songs in the film.

The book for the musical was written by Enda Walsh and retains many of the original songs, including the Academy Award-winning “Falling Slowly.”

The adaptation also stays close to the original story, which is about Guy, a musician and vacuum cleaner repairman, who finds his muse and spiritual rebirth in Girl, a Czechoslovakian immigrant and a musician herself. Over the course of one song-filled week, their collaboration and friendship evolves into a powerful but complicated romance.

“This is not an old-fashioned, happily-ever-after story,” said Dani de Waal, London-based actress who plays the part of Girl. “It does not shy away from the complications of love and love affairs. It’s a real portrayal of a very modern romance. These characters are in the right place at the right time, and it’s not necessarily about romance; it’s about the love that comes into their lives.”

Since its debut at the New York Theatre Workshop in 2011, “Once” has won numerous awards, including Tony Awards for Best Musical, Best Actor and Best Book as well as a Grammy for Best Musical Theatre Album.

The play has one set, the interior of an Irish pub, and every actor plays an instrument.

So essentially, the cast becomes the orchestra for the play. Waal’s character plays the piano. Much like the character of Guy, this experience proved to be a rebirth of Waal’s musical soul.

“When I was younger, I played piano, but the constant practicing was hard and made me lose my love for it,” Waal said. “Now I love it, because I have control over what I’m doing. Because of the music and playing piano every night, my passion for playing has been rekindled. It reminded me how much I truly love playing.”

Each performance of the play is preceded by a 15-minute onstage jam session, during which the actors play selections from a repertoire of about 20 Irish and Czech folk songs. The audience is welcome onstage during this time to stop by the bar set, which functions as a working bar for the theater patrons.

“This is always so much fun,” Waal said. “The audience can come onstage, and they get a drink, they can relax and get involved in the music. And then we go and do the show together, as a team. We’ve already broken down that boundary between performers and audience members.”

This is not a traditional musical where when characters experience moments of great dramatic intensity, they burst spontaneously into song or dance. Here the songs are “real” songs written by the characters and are an intricate part of the plot.

“I think this is a unique approach,” Waal said. “In keeping with the story’s musician characters, all the songs are performed live onstage by the actors, with no orchestral accompaniment or conductor. So it’s much more integral to the story. Everything is more organic.”

“Once” is a celebration of life, love and the power of music. It is a very simple tale, but it is told with originality and deep honesty.

“This play is different than anything you’d normally see in the theater,” Waal said. “It’s a special story full of heart, love and truly stunning music.”