(photos by Jordan Kubat)
Written by Scotty Keister
Once, the movie and the stage musical now running on the South Coast Repertory Segerstrom Stage, is a romance that defies clichés. There is no last minute run to the airport, no sudden eye-opening change of heart, nor is there a throw everything away and surrender to the passion of the moment. There are two people who fall in love, make each others’ lives better, and then move on as friends. It is a romance that celebrates compassion over passion. It celebrates a love of music over a love of self. The title itself is an abbreviated take on the fairy tale line “Once upon a time…” As such, this musical is one of a kind and an exquisite treat.
The film version of Once, written and directed by John Carney, features songs composed by its stars Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova. It was a major winner when it debuted at Sundance in 2007 and achieved moderate box office success when it was released in the U.S. The song “Falling Slowly” went on to win an Oscar. Still, it was not a widely known film. In 2012 it opened on Broadway in a stage adaptation written by Enda Walsh, winning eight Tonys and running for three years. Now Once is a better known story, reaching an entirely new audience who might not be into indie films.
Once is not a natural choice for a Broadway musical. The songs do not actively advance the story line per se; they instead reveal the emotional lives of the characters. The songs are played by the entire cast, most of whom play multiple instruments. They are songs written by the two main characters, Guy and Girl, who are echoes of the two original composers, Hansard and Irglova. The show does a fine job of following the story from the movie. The Guy (who has no name) is a busker in Dubiln, a guitarist and composer of heart-rending love songs, who sings his guts out on the streets. He is largely ignored until the Girl (also no name), a Czech immigrant, happens upon him one day and is enamored of the passion in his music. He is ready to chuck it all in, give up music and possibly even life. She playfully insists on helping him when she discovers he is still brokenhearted over a lost love who has relocated to New York. The Girl promises to help him record his songs and win back his love. It turns out she is an accomplished pianist herself. They begin to play together and compose songs. It begins to look like they are falling in love. But no, their lives are more complicated than that. Ultimately, the bonds of friendship and music prove more fulfilling than any romantic fantasy.
The entire show takes place on a set that replicates a Dublin pub. Most of the ensemble is onstage the whole time—playing various guitars, violins, mandolins, accordions, cello and bass when they are not actually playing characters. The scenes move from place to place with the simple setting of a few tables, chairs and lights. Oddly, only one or two scenes actually take place in the pub. You are left with the feeling that acoustic folk music, and musicians, are the heartbeat of Dublin. The musicianship by the entire cast is top-notch. The show begins when the audience is invited to the stage, pre-curtain, to imbibe in beer or wine onstage while the cast plays a number of Irish folk tunes.
The Guy (Rustin Cole Sailors) and the Girl (Amanda Leigh Jerry) soon enter and the story begins. Jerry’s boundless energy and upbeat spirit are irresistible. Sailors plays the Guy with a typically Irish pessimism infused with a disarming wit. His voice, though not matching the heart-tearing anguish of Hansard’s, is still powerful and passionate. The Guy and the Girl sing together beautifully. His struggle to crawl back from the edge of despair to embrace life again is what makes the story so powerful. It is also clear that the Girl has her own painful past she is coping with, helped along by the Guy’s companionship. When the reprise of “Falling Slowly” was played at the show’s end, the tears flowed, not for false emotion, but for the beauty of the moment. Both of these characters have helped each other move on and realize their dreams.
Among the rest of the cast, I particularly enjoyed Nicholas Mongiardo-Cooper as Billy (the music store owner), Alex Nee as Andrej (the Girl’s intense Czech roommate and bass player), Cassidy Stirtz as the wild Reza (another Czech roommate and violinist), and Scott Waara as the Guy’s father. The tavern set by Ralph Funicello, an SCR stalwart, feels warm and real. The direction by Kent Nicholson never lets the energy lag for a moment and manages to find both humor and pain during the little moments. Kelly Todd’s choreography has the ensemble, when not actively dancing on tables, reflecting the action onstage through subtle physical movements.
For lovers of the movie, the stage show is a must-see. For those new to it, Once is a story you haven’t seen before. The energy is infectious; the music is engaging and sincere, and the performances are magnetic. Once runs through September 30th. See it and catch the film (whether it be for the first time or again). It doesn’t get old.