Reviewed by Duy Quang Mai
The yellowing, rusted light centers Guy (Toby Francis) and the thick silhouette closes in around the audience. In his red-and-white, checkered plaid, he plucks the guitar in a crooning manner, sometimes looking distantly into the audience. The opening score, ‘Leave’ was delivered with a hearty electricity and growling that made me rustle around in my seat, unable to quite stay put. This award-winning musical, Once, opened with the mood of a vintage yet somehow, razor-sharp uppercut to the heart and, quite astonishingly, ended in a tone-downed, soulful way.
In 2007, this musical movie by John Carney came quietly but overtook the theatrical world with storms of accolades and appraisal. Especially, core indie-folk fans couldn’t quite brush off the velvety-thick harmonisation in the duet ‘Falling Slowly’ which later received the Academy Award for Best Original Song. This song itself pinpoints the focal theme of piercing off the fearful chrysalis and morphing into greater colours in life, like dream, like art and vitally, music.
Since then, the musical has been performed on stage and attached eight Tony awards to its brand. Once upholds the vibes of a demure demeanor yet utilises all it has (controlled setting, plotlines and characters) to mash up a journey to the heart and the utter spirit of humans, yearning for a better hour, a better light. This musical is explosive in its quietude and unity, when literal bombarding of all scales of sounds and dancing – both emotionally and technically cutting – hybridise to further polish the interactive and rustic feelings of this musical.
The tightened space in Darlinghurst Theatre allowed the audience to focus on the minimalist setting. I encountered the budding relationship of Guy and Girl’s (Stefanie Caccamo) with a released heart, ready for an emotional exposure. This vintage motif of dream chasers is not that unfamiliar to us, but it always works its magic on the heartstrings.
Girl almost leapt to the ethics of a Manic Pixie Dream Girl, though she still uttered the spirit of something more, deftly overwriting this sentiment with the pinnacle of her song. The splendid singing further outran other slight issues like the ‘swift’ pace and anti-climatic script. Nonetheless, this coming-of-age story reaches the heart in realising that we are going to wake up better, and what we have to move forward is enough. That enoughness is the characters’ desire for music – the notion of art as survival; the heart’s truest confessions of love through negating fear, by coming to terms with how we still have each other.
There was so much to the diaphanous sweetness of chords and crisp choruses that made my heart pump along thick guitars’ and violins’ and cellos’ rises, all striking through the misted light. There was a haunting quality of unison of the cast making a funhouse out of traditional Irish dances became playful with the songs’ executions verging on the Latin side. These elements all helped echo my adrenaline rush. The music in Once felt almost physical, the climaxes felt present through this physicality of sounds, of voice boxes and dreams through the constant propelling of song. The harmonising detonations of the score ‘Gold (a capella)’ pushes the boundaries through its softness of dreamlike utterances ‘Staring out to sea / And if a door be closed / Then a row of homes start building’. The production from director Richard Carroll excels to the brim in narrating a life’s frailty and beauty through sounds and art.
Thanks to the lightning director Peter Rubie, the ambient lights just encased the sounds with an even more fantastically liquid sense of dimension and realism. I was tracked along through the details with the interwoven rustic, brownish light. From the hardwood floor to fleshy pianos, old vintage bars with draft beers and dart to browning walls – this sculpted a blood-close warmth of the Irish people (Guy) and the Czech community (Girl) throughout, delineating the stillness of people, of beauty. In one scene where Guy and Girl stand over a mound on a stage where the blue light splinters into a hologram-like environment, the moment feels eternal and condensed. In times of a brisk pace, the audience is brimmed to the core of life’s aspirations and the want to lean over to the stage to reach for the characters’ realness in love and hope. At the end, the musical received a deserving standing ovation.
In conclusion, Once – though for some can be categorised as of a plaid-shirt’s simplicity – is a league on its own, depicting the human framework of fear against the unsure to trust our worth and happiness. This musical beautifies the mundanity with such rigorous heart and body that it speaks to the rawer side of life. All in all, Once ended on the peaks of fulfilment, the once-again eruption of ‘Falling Slowly’, when fear is morphed into something better, something beautiful. That’s art and the dwelling on music for us all. Out of this extraordinary experience, there was so much humanity to carve out, that I kept on rotating around this line in the musical ‘…because to live you have to love’. Since for once only, sure, to live better, to continue better – we have to love. Yes, to live, we have to love and love better.
Images by Robert Catto