Direct and to the Point: Once

Let me begin by saying this is easily one of the most beautiful pieces of theater that I’ve seen in a long time. Director, John Tiffany, and his cast and crew have created a phenomenal piece of story telling and deserve every inch, ounce and centimeter of the Tony’s they won. From start to finish, it was absolutely wonderful, joyous and heart-aching. Each and every element – the upstage mirror that let’s the actors retreat from the scene while still being accessible to the audience, the simple but specific furnishings, the adding and subtracting of minor costume pieces to show a shift in time or place – contributed to needs of the story. It’s the kind of Broadway experience that makes me excited and proud to work in this industry…and very sad that I don’t seriously play half a dozen instruments. I was familiar with the movie version of this story and was thrilled to find that this retelling of it was even more engaging than the original.

Elements I particularly loved:

Playing.

The show opens with a fantastic jam session performed by the actors/musicians. The audience is invited to purchase drinks from the bar onstage (which is also the set). This is brilliant on multiple levels. First and foremost, it establishes a fun and energetic atmosphere both for the audience and for the performer which is a win/win situation. There’s nothing worse than a lethargic audience or a bland performance. Additionally, it is a superb way to establish the world of the play and let the audience feel like insiders.

Listening.

No one listens to music the way musicians listen to music. There is a focus and intensity which they can direct into listening that puts most of us to shame. One person intently listening to someone or something can catch and capture the attention of an entire Broadway house. It’s a great point of reference for how active listening should be done and an excellent reminder how compelling and elegant just standing in place and directing all your attention towards something can be. And this show in particular uses listening, both to music and to each other, with gorgeous ferocity.Once Logo

Transition, Transition, Transition.

If I had my druthers, transitional blackouts would be highly frowned upon. I know they’re a necessity for many shows, but often it kind of feels like a cop out. The beauty (and challenge) of theater is that it’s happening live, right before our eyes. That means, on some level, we don’t really expect the time and place to magically shift all by themselves. So, rather than pretend that invisible stagehands (dressed in black so you won’t see them in the dark) make things disappear and reappear, why not use the transition as an opportunity to further your story in a non-verbal capacity? These are my favorite kinds of transitions and this show does a beautiful job of making the most of them. Here, moving the furniture serves as a break from the verbal, left-brain side of the story and a switch to the musical, physical and right-brain side of the story to lovely effect. (Billy Elliot, when it was on Broadway, also used their transitions to great effect.)

An On-Stage Audience.

I think true creativity is coming up with an interesting (and functional) solution to your constraints. The scenario for the scene in which the song “Gold” is first sung, is that Girl has signed Guy up to sing in an open mic night, which requires the ensemble of actors to serve as audience members. Up until this point the music for each song has been either generated solely by the actors within the scene or with cast members adding to the orchestration from their seats around the edge of the stage. In this moment, the cast members sit facing upstage (as an audience to Guy’s performance) and play their instruments from this arrangement with their backs to the audience. It’s a solution that is at once both obvious and innovative. Super smart all around.

Barrier By Language.

Another great example of operating within your constraints, is the use of projected subtitles in this show. Girl speaks both Czech and English – Czech to her family and roommates and English to Guy and the other townspeople. Early on in the show we see the English translation of her conversations with her mother and roommates projected on the set. Later this conceit enables one of the shows most gut-wrenching moments.

By A Nose.

We love (and hate, and get annoyed with, and generally experience things) specifically. Each relationship has it’s own lexicon of phrases and gestures and it’s that specificity that really makes a relationship ring true. While all of the relationships in this show are richly specific, one of the moments that really melted my heart was between Girl and her daughter. During Act II, Girl’s daughter pops up from behind the bar and hugs her, they then proceed to rub noses before Girl pulls her in for a hug. I have no idea if this was a director inspired moment or an actor inspired moment and, in all honesty, I don’t really care. What I care, is that it reads as a gesture that is beautifully unique (and true) to their relationship.

* Special thanks to Ed and Linda Paradine for treating me to this production.

Thoughts? Comments? Questions? Post them below. The more the merrier!

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