Stuart Ward Stars in 'Once' at the Kennedy Center

Stuart Ward and Dani de Waal in "Once"
Joan Marcus
Stuart Ward and Dani de Waal in "Once"

On the Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater’s stage, it’s not that easy to spot Stuart Ward among the crowd of musicians milling around with audience members on a set that very effectively imitates a Dublin pub. He’s in there somewhere among the crowd of fiddle players and violinists, the accordion player, the red-headed woman, the big publican and the assorted audience members who’ve braved it out and come waltzing on stage for the half hour or so prior to the start of “Once,” the Tony-Award winning musical having a road stop here through Aug. 16.

You’ll recognize him soon enough—he’s the guy, playing the “guy” part in this sweet, big-hearted but oddly un-sentimental show about a guy named just “guy,” love-lorn and locked up with his music, and a girl named “girl”, a spritely, blonde, optimistic Czech émigré and single mother who has inspiration written all over her, and how they connect through music surrounded by an endearing group of eccentrics and regular folks blissfully playing and making music through the course of things.

The minute Ward, with that rugged-sensitive two-day beard handsome-but-shy look, picks up a guitar, you, and the rest of the people in the play notice him. That guitar is “guy’s” connection to the world and his own heart and that of the audience’s, and, as in the course of things, the “girl’s” heart, too.

And from then on, you’re in their world, and the fact that half of the characters somewhat disconcertingly are from Prague seems perfectly natural, and that the “guy” and the “girl” should start to have feelings toward each other. That’s as natural as having a Guinness in a bar with similar, fizzy-feel-good results.

And that Ward should be at home with a guitar is pretty natural too. “I’ve been playing guitar since I was six,” Ward says in a telephone interview with The Georgetowner. “I’ve been doing that since seems like most my life." On stage, the Englishman drifts easily into an Irish accent, and a little bit of a lilt remains over the phone.

Ward, who plays guitar for English rock legend Sir Cliff Richard, tried out for “Once”—formerly a cult independent small film turned into a West End musical-cum-Broadway musical—and was an understudy. “I got to go on a few times, but mostly I watched and waited and learned, and it was such a phenomenal show, so new and different.” When the national show was starting up, he was asked to take over the lead “boy” part in a show that won a ton of Tonys.

“It’s something very special that happens here,” he says. “There are actually a few shows like that in England, with that kind of music and process, musicians playing parts, they’re organic. Ask me, I think it’s the coming thing—there’s so much more room for the audience to react and even participate, this thing of being able to go up on the stage before and during intermission.”

“I love the music in this show, playing the tunes, singing the parts,” Ward said. He feels connected to the part of “guy.” Ward says, “He’s a little locked up and expresses himself with the music, that’s how he shows his emotions, and I guess I’m a little, a lot like that myself.” He says his co-star, Dani De Waal is “a gift," adding, "She’s such a natural, it’s just so easy to work with her.”

This seems to true of almost all of the characters—there isn’t a one that doesn’t grab an instrument at one time or another, even the banker from Cork, who works up a pretty mean cello.

“The music’s a lot of things—there’s traditional—and non-traditional Irish music, folk music, thumping rock music, ballads, and somewhere in the audience, there’s something for someone.”

He loves touring. “I feel like I’m really seeing America,” he said. “It’s a lovely country, so varied, so generous.”

A natural actor, he becomes something else when he sings. “I have a musical career, so that’s a thing I’m passionate about." He has a CD out called “Pictures.”

To watch him—and De Waal—perform the Oscar-winning song “Falling Slowly” is to see Ward take hold of himself. It’s like something pure coming out of his heart, a heart slowly filling up and sprouting wings musically.

If you check him out on YouTube, you can see that he takes to American roots naturally, by way of the tribe of Celts and Liverpool.

There’s a black and white video with Ward in the famous Sun Studios, picking up a guitar, surrounded by portraits of Jerry Lee Lewis and Elvis, reaching all the pain and sorrow, the high notes, the heart of Roy Orbison’s “dreams.” He seems in the midst of rock and roll, the South’s Blues, all at home. As he is on stage, and not just “Once” in “Once”.

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Sun, 28 May 2017 06:23:31 -0400

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