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“Once” debuts at the Academy of Music—and makes anyone with a soft heart sob


I saw Once, the film, years ago and cried. It’s a devastator. It captures lots of emotion, touches on many aspects of the human experience, but certainly dwells in romance and love., the last two things being two of my favorite things to think and write about. It’s the story of a guy and a girl (literally, almost every other character has a name, but the leads, in the program, are listed as “Guy” and “Girl”) meeting, feeling a romantic spark, flirting, courting and communicating through music, yet always knowing that she’s married, and he’s got a girl in New York. They’re in Dublin, and she’s Czech, which is another universal truth explored here: the feeling of being from somewhere else, having a family elsewhere and forming your own notion of home wherever you are and wherever you’re loved.

Once debuted last night at the Academy of Music and kicked off the Broadway Philadelphia season on Broad Street. It runs through to Nov. 10th. (Flashdance picks up the torch on the 19th; Beauty and the Beast runs quickly on the 26th to Dec. 1st, and then Jersey Boys and so on.) It’s a great way to spend a few hours of your life, plus Once has won eight Tony Awards.

It’s a good musical. Let me tell you why.

This isn’t just a troupe of dancers and singers. All of these talented performers are musicians who play an instrument on stage, and the instruments are many. Stuart Ward, the lead, plays a guitar, and Dani de Waal, his love interest, plays the piano. Both extremely well. Then, his dad, played magically by Raymond Bokhour, wields the mandolin and sings with an absolutely heartbreaking tenor. Her mom plays the accordion, and her roommates pretty much play everything else, including the swarthy and sexy Svec (Matt DeAngelis), who wears a tight white undertank and track pants, and plays the guitar, banjo, mandolin, drums and percussion.

Most songs might start a capella, or just with a guitar, and slowly, gradually swell to include every body on stage playing something, which includes violins, cellos and a ukulele, concertina and melodica. But it’s that damn “Falling Slowly” that gets me every time, a kind of signature for the score; an achingly beautiful duet deeply imbued with plaintive vocals and heartfelt longing. Girl accuses Guy of sitting on a batch of songs that have so much feeling that they’ve got to be sung. And the lovely irony is that, yes, they were written for a woman who left him for NYC six months ago, but she’s the one who he’s singing for and about here and now in Dublin. The only rival to “Falling Slowly” for sentimentality is “Gold,” a song that suggests he wouldn’t trade any amount of it for her love.

Everything about the performance is humbly earnest: the stage is only altered by props while it stays, essentially, a bar setting. In fact, during the intermission, you can walk up on stage and get your Kimmel Center-approved sippy cup refilled with Jameson. When the entire cast sings in unison, it’s perfect, like the delicately tender and quietly-sang “The Moon” at the end of Act Two. The reprise of “Falling Slowly” got me good and, it seems, even got the better of Ward, who wiped some tears off his face before taking his bow.

If you’re a romantic and a softie, you are doing yourself a disservice by missing this run of Once. It’s the best kind sigh-inducing, tear-jerker entertainment in the city. GET A TICKET.

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