Saunter up to the bar at "Once" and order yourself a pint of wistfulness. The beautifully melancholy Broadway hit based on the 2006 Irish indie film is nothing like the kind of shows that usually nab the Tony for best musical.
Spontaneity and understatement are the keys to this charmer, an intoxicating antidote to the flash and formula that have conquered the Great White Way in recent years. The unexpected smash runs through July 13 at San Francisco's Curran Theatre as part of the SHN series.
Transported to the stage by innovative director John Tiffany and choreographer Steven Hoggett, a duo best known for "Black Watch," "Once" is a gossamer folk music serenade that never forgets that its intensity lies in its intimacy. There's no hard sell here, no 11 o'clock number, no jazz hands, only a score that will steal your heart.
Tiffany signals the unconventional nature of the experience by inviting the audience on stage to enter the colorful world of a battered old Dublin watering hole (apt design by Bob Crowley). Before the show and during the intermission, you can rub elbows with the locals, sip a pint, listen to the musicians chasing their melodies. For the record, you cannot pull up a chair but you still can't help but get sucked into the ephemeral revelry.
This is a pub that's far more than a bar. It's a village unto itself, a thriving community of drifters and dreamers spinning their yarns to music. One of the most poignant aspects of this bittersweet fairy tale is its embrace of the pub as the soul of the city.
Enda Walsh, a playwright famed for dark fantasies such as "The Walworth Farce," respects the awkward sweetness of young romance in his book. It's sentimental, even hokey, but never cloying because the dialogue has wit and edge.
"Do you enjoy being Irish?," the Czech emigre known only as Girl asks the Irish street busker, known as Guy.
"Are you serious?" he retorts.
"I'm always serious. I'm Czech," she says with customary pluck.
Tiffany creates the world of the play and Walsh fills in the nuances, from the dorky piano seller (a wry turn by Evan Harrington) with a crush on Girl to the earnest fast food employee (Alex Nee) eager to climb the corporate ladder. "Once" also hints at the hardships of the immigrant experience and the passion and pride that Dubliners feel for their city.
While the first act of this 2½-half hour show feels stretched too thin, and an interlude featuring a musically challenged bank manager (Benjamin Magnuson) seems tacked on, "Once" has a delicacy and yearning that softens its imperfections.
Stuart Ward is irresistible as the thwarted singer/songwriter Guy lamenting his lost love, although he may be a little too handsome for the part. The ethereal Dani de Waal captures the bravery of being a penniless single mother in a strange country. They both inhabit the songs from the inside out.
Much of the magic comes from Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova's score, a rich and transporting mix of mandolin, violin, cello, guitar and banjo that's bursting with anthems that will linger in your ears for days. "When Your Mind's Made Up" and the Oscar winning "Falling Slowly" are pure alt-folk-pop bliss.
Hoggett matches the tenderness of the production with movement that's more gestural modern dance than Broadway choreography. The moves here are abstract and primal. The actors all play their own instruments in this ensemble so there's no fuss and shtick to get in between those beguiling harmonies and our smitten ears.
Book by Enda Walsh, music and lyrics by Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova
Through: July 13
Where: Curran Theatre, 445 Geary St., San Francisco.
Tickets: $45-$210, 888-746-1799, www.shnsf.com