There are some obvious qualities that separate great musicals from the good ones: emotive lyrics, creative choreography, a talented cast, and a well-defined storyline. But when it comes to the very best theater experiences, greatness is found in the nuances. Once, a Grammy Award and eight-time Tony Award-winning musical, is one of those subtle pieces of art.

Based on an Irish indie film (and Oscar winner) of the same name, Once follows Irish “Guy” who has given up on his music and the Czech “Girl” who inspires him to pick up his guitar again and dream of a life beyond Dublin’s city limits. Love, loss, fate: These are common themes in theater and film. What separates Once from the pack is the wildly creative ways in which the story unfolds. The stage (pictured, above) doesn’t change save a few chairs, tables, and a piano being shifted in and out; the 12 actors remain on stage for almost the entire show; and, most notably, the score is created by the cast, all of whom spend most of the production dancing and singing while playing their respective instruments (one even holds a cello as he flies through complicated choreography).

Once is a Broadway production with the heart of a community theater: Every actor doubling and tripling up on responsibilities—and carrying them off with the poise and sincerity of the most experienced in the business. The show isn’t without its flaws—mainly that the first act (which clocks in at more than an hour) is palpably long—but this is a musical not just for the theater fanatic but a production that appeals to music lovers of all varieties. As Guy and Girl tiptoe around each other’s thoughts, the audience is slowly drawn into evaluating their own relationships (familial, romantic, and otherwise). Once doesn’t tell a new story. Instead, it shares a moment in two people’s lives with haunting integrity and finds beauty in the space between.

Once plays at the Buell Theatre through May 18. Tickets start at $25.

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Daliah Singer
Daliah Singer
Daliah Singer is an award-winning writer and editor based in Denver. You can find more of her work at