Credit: Handout photo by Joan Marcus

“For an island this tiny to make all thesewriters and poets and musicians! This is insane,” pronounces the protagonist, a young Czech immigrant, in the musical Once. As she says this, she smiles at the handsome Irish guitarist at the center of the story making music.

One artform she does not mention the island making is theater. But in his stage adaption of the beloved 2008 low-budget film Once, Irish playwright Enda Walsh continues to prove by example that the tiny island is still exporting great drama. While the touring version—making its D.C. debut at the Kennedy Center—has its slower moments and would look better in a more intimate space, the musical retains the spirit of the film while working within the rich traditions of Ireland’s theater canon.

For example, Irish plays are very often set in bars; so is Once. They often begin with a patron at that bar telling a story. That’s the case in Once too, except the stories are sung: first a gloomy traditional ballad (“On Raglan Road”), then the central songwriter strumming and belting his breakup anthem “Leave” with the sincere earnestness of Achtung Baby-era Bono.

In John Carney’s film, the songwriter Glen Hansard, frontman of the Frames, played an aspiring musician with a day job at his father’s vacuum cleaner-repair shop. Fans of the film may recall Hansard was originally just supposed to write the music. He ended up starring opposite his cowriter, Marketa Irglova, who portrayed an immigrant pianist whose willingness to give love a second shot ends up lifting Hansard’s character out of a post-breakup funk. They went on to perform at the Academy Awards and win an Oscar.

In the musical, director John Tiffany (former artistic director of the National Theatre of Scotland, perhaps best known for Black Watch), has all the actors play their own instruments. While other musicals use that strategy as an interpretive gimmick, the onstage musicmaking in Once feels far more organic, and in the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater, it also sounds terrific.

Dani de Waal, playing “Girl,” is a bit more precocious than Irglova’s character was in the film. There’s something to be said, however, for bringing more energy to the stage version, and that’s a challenge for her costar Stuart Ward; the movie cameras could zoom in on Hansard’s sad, craggy face, but audiences in the balcony cannot. Both actors are best when holding a pick or sitting on the piano bench.

Walsh livens things up a bit by giving the supporting characters more to do. On tour, those portrayals include Evan Harrington as Billy the horny music shop owner; Benjamin Magnuson as the closeted bank teller who happens to play the cello; and Erica Swindell as Reza, the feisty Czech siren who is also a superb fiddler.

Bob Crowley’s barroom set relies on the cast carrying small props and furniture on and off stage to create a sense that the action is moving from Grafton Street, to the music shop, to Girl’s apartment, and so on. Whereas the film was paean to Dublin, the sparseness of the musical allows audiences to better connect their own trials of love and romance to the scenarios onstage. Once may be an Irish story, but like so many spun by the island’s poets and playwrights, it’s also a universal one.

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