Review: Theater almost too big for love story ‘Once’ _lowres

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

A marriage proposal in a candlelit restaurant is one thing; a marriage proposal blown up on a Jumbotron in a sports arena is quite another.

Both are memorable, but they are very different.

The Broadway musical “Once” earned eight Tony awards in 2012, including best musical. On Broadway, it was staged in a theater less than half the size of our Saenger, where the touring show is being staged through Sunday.

Part of the Broadway in New Orleans series, “Once” strains to fill the Saenger with a love story’s warm intimacy. Still, it was entertaining, and the acting, sets and choreography were polished and professional.

“Once” is a bittersweet love story about longing, passion and the transformative power of music.

It features Guy, an Irish street musician who once dreamed of a successful singing career, and Girl, a Czech immigrant and pianist who discovers his talent and helps him reignite his dreams.

The play is based on the 2007 film, which was the winner of the World Audience Award at Sundance. It was written and directed by John Carney and starred musicians Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová.

The music in “Once” — one of the main attractions — is folk-pop, with a score that is a mixture of rousing drinking songs, ardent anthems and haunting ballads.

The orchestration features folk and classical instruments such as mandolins, banjos, violins, cellos, beatboxes, concertina, ukulele and piano.

It is live music and integral to the story, and the musicianship of the ensemble is simply stellar. The Hansard and Irglová Oscar-winning song “Falling Slowly” is beautifully done and one of the night’s highlights.

The single set, designed by Bob Crowley, is an Irish pub, its walls covered with many well-placed mirrors, which effectively reflect the play’s action. Tony award winner Natasha Katz’s lighting is brilliant. Her golden lighting creates the subtle glow of candle light, the warmth of the pub’s fire and illuminates Guy’s fiery passion as it blazes off of his guitar.

Steven Hoggett’s choreography has a fluid tenderness, at its best when the ensemble dance while playing their instruments. It is so clear that the the instruments and the musicians are one, fused gracefully together.

Dani de Waal, who plays Girl, captures the spirit of a struggling single mother in a strange country. Her performance is quirky and full of innocent optimism. But it is her singing that carries her performance. Her voice is clear and strong and the second-act ballad, “The Hill,” was moving and memorable.

Stuart Ward, who plays Guy, is a talented English singer/songwriter, but his Irish dialect seemed to wander throughout Europe. And though he clearly is meant to be singing with emotional pain, too often it seemed forced. This was especially evident in his screeching solo “Leave.”

The standout support performance of the night was Alex Nee’s portrayal of Andrej, a fast food employee eager to become a supervisor. His quiet pain and perseverance radiated across the huge theater and connected with the audience.

Strong support work was also delivered by Scott Waara as Da, Guy’s father; Erica Swindell as the Czech club singer/violinist Reza; and Matt DeAngelis as the high-energy drummer Svec.

Director John Tiffany’s staging painted stunning pictures as he placed his players on a variety of levels, which is quite effective especially in a second-act scene where the couple retreats to a hill overlooking the city. His transitions were fluid and moved the action along, but there were too many times when what should have been pregnant pauses felt more like the 22-month gestation of an elephant. In general, the play’s energy was uneven.

But again, perhaps that is less about direction and more about putting that play into the Saenger, a beautiful theater, but too big for this play to work at its Tony-winning level.

The play’s quiet power seems detached. To be truly effective, the play’s intensity must be felt through the music. It must resonate and thrum through one’s body.

At the Saenger, “Once” was entertaining, but it lacked the emotional intimacy that a smaller venue would certainly provide.