No names, please, but I’ve been at some musicals in the past few months that were enjoyable despite their, you know, music. It’s a drag to like a show but realize you’d love it if the songs didn’t suck, which is why it’s such a pleasure to see Theater Latté Da’s “Once,” where music is the star of the show.
That’s established even before “Once” begins. Most of the cast assembles on stage to play Irish folk songs, only easing into the musical proper when leads Guy (Ben Bakken) and Girl (Britta Ollmann) appear. After all, this is a show inspired by music: It was adapted from the Oscar-winning movie “Once,” a project that began when writer/musician John Carney asked Irish rock star Glen Hansard to write some songs for the film.
The in-love-with-music sense continues as Guy, a Dublin busker who has fallen out of love with his songs, meets Girl, a Czech woman who instantly responds to them. Essentially, he is lost and she is persuasive. In fact, Girl is later referred to as “an angel of divinity” and there is something otherworldly about both her assurance and the show itself, the title of which seems to summon the fairy tale’s “Once upon a time ... ” Director Peter Rothstein has augmented Girl’s angelic quality by making things magically appear when they’re needed: a vacuum cleaner, an accordion, wall decor, all of which underscores the idea that Girl somehow knows exactly what everyone needs, and that what Guy needs is to share his music with the world.
Soon, the two are collaborating, Guy on guitar and Girl on piano, on the Oscar-winning song “Falling Slowly” (credited, like the other songs, to Hansard and the film’s co-star, Markéta Irglová). Putting the hit upfront establishes the show’s belief that, as one character says, “You can’t have a city without music,” as well as the composers’ affection for songs that build, Arcade Fire-like, from soft to louder to epic. “Falling Slowly” grows as the rest of the 13-member cast joins in and we realize we have shifted from the pair’s rough duet to the lush, beatific version of the song they imagine in their heads.
A big, old-fashioned ballad, “Falling Slowly” seems to promise that “Once” will be a love story, but is it? Not much happens in the show, which takes place over a week during which the characters record a demo and Guy and Girl gradually reveal their romantic heartaches and musical missteps. Along the way, there are some broadly played antics from the supporting cast that don’t quite jibe with the subtle, inward-looking performances of Ollmann and Bakken, both of whom make the appropriate choice of letting their big, supple singing voices do most of the talking for them.
It all comes back to the music, though, including a goosebumpy “When Your Mind’s Made Up” that stunned the audience into silence on opening night and a gorgeously arranged, a cappella “The Hill” that reminds us that when it comes to instruments, it’s hard to beat the human voice. (The cast, incidentally, is the band, with everyone playing at least one instrument.) Somewhere in there comes the confirmation that yes, indeed, “Once” is a love story and that what it’s in love with is music.
What: Book by Enda ► cq ◄ Walsh, music and lyrics by Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová. Directed by Peter Rothstein.
When: 7:30 p.m. Wed.-Fri., 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Sat., 2 p.m. Sun, ends Oct. 21.
Where: Ritz Theater, 345 13th Av. NE., Mpls.
Tickets: $31-$51, 612-339-3003, latteda.org