A&E Road Trip Review: ‘Once’ and ‘Smokefall’ in Chicago

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"Once" at Chicago's Oriental Theatre

Oct. 19 brought another IBJ A&E Road Trip, this time to Chicago for the touring production of the Broadway hit "Once." Indy actor Paul Hansen went along for the ride to share insight into life in the theater (prior to moving to Indy, he appeared in international tours of "West Side Story" and "A Chorus Line."

Adapted from the low-key movie of the same name, "Once" centers on an Irish musician/vacuum cleaner repairman ready to give up on his art after his girlfriend moved to New York. Enter a young Czech woman with a vacuum cleaner to fix and a talent for both piano playing and being a nudge. I'll say no more about the plot except that, more than once I thought "How are they going to stretch this to a full-length musical" and, every time, i was pleasantly surprised by how the show's creators made it work.

It's easy, at least for me, to be turned off by books/movies/plays about struggling artists. The difference here is that the music created by Guy (the only name given), supports the enthusiasm of Girl (ditto). The opening, pleading "Leave" and the Oscar-winning song "Falling Slowly" give Guy instant music credibility, which the show itself already earned in a mini-concert on stage before curtain time.

Yes, some of the humor is played big in what seems like an effort to fill a theater too big for the show. And Dani de Waal initially plays Girl so much in the Pixie Dream Girl mode that, not remembering plot details from the film, led me to suspect that the character might be a spirit or figment of guy's imagination rather than an equally flesh-and-blood person. But the power of the music, the amazing amount of empathy it generates for its leads, and the sheer beauty of many of the moments in the second act render any complaint trivial.

"How's the heart?" Guy's father asks his son in one of those moments. In this magical musical, I'm happy to report that the heart is just fine.

And, no, there's no truth to the rumor that "Once" will be followed by the sequels "Twice" and "Three Times a Lady."

"Once" runs through Oct. 27 in Chicago. The closest the tour comes to Indy is Cleveland in November and St. Louis in April. If audiences support the tour, we may see it here in the 2014/15 season.

"Smokefall" at Chicago's Goodman Theatre

I didn't return to Indy on the aforementioned IBJ A&E Road Trip. Instead, I stayed in Chicago for the Goodman Theatre's production of Noah Haidle's "Smokefall."

Like a microscope that transmutes into a telescope, "Smokefall" begins tightly focused as a domestic comedy/drama in which a father and husband, Daniel (Eric Slater), seems to be having a typical morning at home before heading to work. Thanks to an "Our Town"-ish narrator with a penchant for footnoting, we learn that this will, in fact, be the last time that the family will see Daniel.

But Haidle covers more ground than just a man's abandonment of his clan. He soon takes us not only into the womb of Daniel's yet unborn twins but also into the future where the repercussions of his act still impact his descendants. On a remarkable set that seems to shake with every birth contraction, his characters ponder the nature of life and death, wrestle with the possibilities of love, and deliver some joyfully terrible jokes.

The cast is uniformly fine, but the casting coup is Mike Nussbaum as the retired Colonel in the first act and as Johnny, one of the first-act fetuses, in the second. At 89 years old, Nussbaum brings a lifetime of experience to this new work. His very presence accentuates the core themes of the show. Rare is the play that understands what it's like to be a child, an adult, and a senior citizen. "Smokefall," gets that and more, entertainingly, absurdly, movingly catching the ache of being human.

"Smokefall" runs through Nov. 3 at the Goodman. Here's hoping it's picked up here when rights become available.

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