Stuart Ward and Dani de Waal perform as Guy and Girl in Once

When I first heard that the movie Once was being made into a musical, I thought it was a great idea. The tiny Irish independent film about two musicians who form an unlikely bond was, after all, a surprising international hit that earned an Academy Award for Best Song in 2006, so its musical bona fides are solid. You could even say its soundtrack of emotional ballads has (mostly) replaced Rent's as the preferred playlist for nerdy, theatrically inclined millennials. 

Once
Thru March 15. $30–105. Hobby Center for the Performing Arts 
800 Bagby St.
713-622-7469
houston.broadway.com 

But with the movie tightly focused on the natural connection between the leads—they are never even identified, only referred to as Guy and Girl—an adaptation presents challenges. No one goes to the theater to see two people have a quiet conversation about art and life, no matter how attractive they are. 

On opening night, certain special audience members (not me) were allowed onstage to check out the set before the show began, and for about 15 minutes before curtain we were all treated to what seemed like an impromptu concert from the non-lead cast, most of whom also served as an on-stage band throughout the show. Despite the stage clearing of gawkers at a certain point, I was hardly aware that the production had slipped from "pre-show entertainment" to "Act I" until the male lead struck up "Leave," one of the most powerful songs from the movie, a bitter ode to an ex-lover. 

Stuart Ward and Dani de Waal as Guy and Girl in Once

Most of the rest of the show followed the same tone, deftly bridging the line between concert and musical. No one spontaneously interrupts reality to break into song; it's more like a behind-the-scenes look at how musicians work, interact, and get inspired. And of course everyone around Guy and Girl—bar patrons, roommates, bank loan officers—are also musicians, because it's Dublin and that's basically what pop culture has taught to me to expect from Ireland. 

Of course Once isn't just a story about people making music, it's also a love story, if an unconventional one, and the production suffers a little bit from a lack of chemistry in the leads' first interactions. Stuart Ward and Dani de Waal both show plenty of talent and charisma, but Ward at times seems handicapped trying to disguise his pure, theater-trained voice as the rough growl of a street musician and de Waal has a habit of over-emphasizing her Czech character's accent in a way that makes her sound chirpy and one-dimensional. This disjointedness makes the true beauty of their first duet, "Falling Slowly"—that's the song that won the Oscar—feel rather abrupt.

The show warms into a better rhythm as it moves towards the second act, though, as the production seems to become more confident of both its writing (the Girl has quite a few great one-liners) and its staging, supporting the music through dreamy dance sequences. By the time the characters are reprising "Falling Slowly" in the final moments of the show, I was so caught up in the music, the performances, and the will-they-or-won't-they energy between Guy and Girl that the early hiccups seemed a distant memory. 

After all, theater is often entertaining, but it rarely feels this real or this heartfelt. That's what made the movie so special, and I'm glad to see that the version at the Hobby Center strikes a winning chord as well.

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