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“Once” Creates Bittersweet Music and Love Onstage on Jan. 21-26 at the Durham Performing Arts Center

Guy (Stuart Ward) shows a new confidence with Girl (Dani de Waal) accompanying him on piano (photo by Joan Marcus)

Struggling Irish busker Guy (Stuart Ward) shows a new confidence with his new friend and number-one fan, the Czech immigrant Girl (Dani de Waal), accompanying him on piano (photo by Joan Marcus)

Rarely does a movie make it to stage in a manner that is both respectful to the original and uplifting in its own unique way, but Once is the exception to the rule. Winner of eight Tony Awards® (including Best Musical, Best Direction of a Musical (John Tiffany), Best Book (Enda Walsh) and Best Orchestrations (Martin Lowe), the musical about an Irish busker (Guy, played by Stuart Ward) and the Czech girl who inspires him (Girl, played by Dani de Waal), left the audience last night at the Durham Performing Arts Center both thrilled by the music and a little teary-eyed by its story of creativity and muses and human passion.

Before the play begins, all 13 members of the cast play their own instruments (guitars, mandolins, accordions, violins) and sing on stage, beginning with a 20-minute mini-concert in which the audience is invited onstage into the set (an Irish pub) to buy drinks and listen to the cast play three set songs and three that vary from night to night. To be on that stage, seeing the characters interact with each other, brings the play into the audience (or the audience into the play) — and DPAC patrons immediately connect with the heart of the story: its music.

The pub is the center of the show, often changing with a simple spotlight to indicate that the characters are in the Girl’s home or in the piano store where they create some of their music. Only once does the setting physically change and that is toward the end of the play, when the Girl and the Guy are staring at the ocean off the coast of Ireland and trying not to talk about how they are falling in love with each other. The decision to keep the stage set as simple as possible was a brilliant one for this show, because the story is indeed about the people and the music, not about the place where they make it. Creativity can occur on the street or in a piano shop or even in a small apartment above a Hoover repair shop (where the Guy lives), but the heart is the place where creativity lives, and these two singer-songwriters share every bit of their process with each other, as well as with the spellbound audience.

The audience meets Guy (Stuart Ward) as he gruffly sings “Leave,” a song that reveals his anger about the heartbreak his Ex-Girlfriend (Erica Swindell) has caused him. The song attracts the Girl (Dani de Waal), who comments about his singing. In their humorous conversation, the Guy reveals that he repairs Hoovers (vacuum cleaners) and the Girl (a Czech with a heavy accent and an often hilarious way of misinterpreting English phrases) joyfully reveals that she has one in need of repair and that she’ll repay him with music. The vacuum cleaner “doesn’t suck,” she states, and that machine instantly becomes a metaphor for the relationships both the Guy and the Girl are stuck in. They are painful relationships, not fulfilling, but they “don’t suck.”

The story centers on the Guy’s painful songs about that past love and the Girl’s ability to help him take those songs to a new level, a level that enables him to have the courage to gather them all into a CD that they record on a shoestring in 24 hours (life imitates art). The naked belief she has in him morphs into an unspoken passion that everyone (his father played by Raymond Bokhour, her mother played by Donna Garner, their musician friends and family — played by Matt DeAngelis, John Steven Gardner, Evan Harrington, Ryan Link, Benjamin Magnuson, Alex Nee, Ericca Swindell, Kolette Tetlow, and Claire Wellin — seem to recognize before they do themselves. As Guy and Girl connect through their music, the songs underscore what they are not physically saying aloud.

The songs and Stuart Ward and Dani de Waal’s delicately sweet and poignant phrasing of the lyrics are the voice of love, the tenderness of their emotions, the fear that one feels when actually falling in love. In one moment of intense tenderness, the Guy and the Girl lean in toward each other, simply touching foreheads. There was no need for a passionate kiss. That simple, prolonged tension of not touching the other was an emotion everyone at the Durham Performing Arts Center seemed to recognize and it felt like the audience collectively held its breath.

The true story of Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová , the stars of the 2007 movie and co-writers of the songs, is an honest one, concentrating more on the healing power of music than on the way they feel about each other. It is a story that is contemporary, global, deep, and complicated, just as the play is, which is what makes it both romantic and quirky.

Though de Waal plays the role of the Girl in a much lighter fashion than Irglová did in the movie, and Ward’s Guy is a bit more sexy than Hansard’s, the actors in the first national tour of this award-winning musical are both powerful and sensitive, embodying their roles in such a way as to earn several standing ovations. Their characters both transform themselves and each other, as well as the audience, making for an emotional journey.

But the actors must be equally as good at acting as they are at singing and playing their instruments, for the music in this play is the stuff of Oscars® (the lead song, “Falling Slowly” won Best Song in 2008), and they are. Everyone who left DPAC last night talked about wanting to own the soundtrack.

When Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglová accepted the Oscar, Hansard noted that the movie was made with handheld cameras on a very small budget and that they never thought they’d be standing in front of the Oscar audience; but his last words underlined the theme of the movie/play: “Make art.” That is, indeed, what this musical does.

If you don’t already have tickets to Once, move mountains to get them. You won’t be sorry.

Jan. 25th Raleigh, NC Raleigh review by Larisa Mount: and Jan. 9th interview with Matt DeAngelis, conducted by Larisa Mount: Jan. 23rd Durham, NC Indy Week review by Byron Woods (who awarded the show 4 of 5 stars): and Jan. 15th mini-preview by Emma D. Miller:; Jan. 22nd Durham, NC Herald-Sun review by Dawn Baumgartner Vaughan: and Jan. 16th preview by Dawn Baumgartner Vaughan: (Note: You must register to read these articles); and Jan. 22nd Raleigh, NC News & Observer review by Roy C. Dicks: (Note: To read Triangle Arts and Entertainment’s online version of the Jan. 21st Triangle Review review by Robert W. McDowell, click

The Durham Performing Arts Center presents ONCE at 7:30 p.m. Jan. 22 and 23, 8 p.m. Jan. 24, 2 and 8 p.m. Jan. 25, and 1 and 6:30 p.m. Jan. 26 at 123 Vivian St., Durham, North Carolina 27701, in the American Tobacco District.

TICKETS: $42.75-$126.75 (including fees).


DPAC Box Office: 919-680-ARTS (2787),, or

Ticketmaster: 800-745-3000 or

GROUP RATES (10+ tickets): 919/281-0587,, or

SHOW: and










Once (2007 Irish musical film): (official website) and (Wikipedia).

Once (2011 Off-Broadway, 2012 Broadway, 2013 Dublin, and 2013 West End musical): (official website), (Facebook page), (Twitter page), and (Wikipedia).

Glen Hansard (music and lyrics): (official website) and (Wikipedia).

Markéta Irglová (music and lyrics): (official website) and (Wikipedia).

Enda Walsh (book): (Curtis Brown bio) and (Wikipedia).

John Tiffany (Scottish director): ( bio) and (Wikipedia).

Donna Garner (Toronto actress): ( bio).


Dawn Reno Langley is a Durham, NC-based author who writes novels, poetry, children’s books, and nonfiction books on many subjects, as well as theater reviews. She is also Dean of General Education and Developmental Studies at Piedmont Community College in Roxboro, where she oversees the theater program at the Kirby Cultural Arts Complex, and a member of the Person County Arts Council. To read all of Dawn Langley’s Triangle Review reviews online at Triangle Arts and Entertainment, click To read more of her writings, click


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