Review: “Once” upon a stage—a rueful, tuneful tale of Guy meets Girl

David Toole and the musical ensemble of Once; photo by Emma K. Rothenberg Ware
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The indie film Once was a surprise hit of 2007. Made on a shoestring budget in Ireland, with no big names, no special effects, and no cataclysmic or euphoric climax, it’s the type of quiet film that one can hardly imagine being made or distributed today. It garnered glowing reviews, earned the audience award at the Sundance Film Festival and the Independent Spirit Award for Best Foreign Film, performed exceptionally well at the box office, and won the Oscar for Best Original Song at the 2007 Academy Awards for its haunting love song, “Falling Slowly.”

The movie was adapted for the stage, making its way to Broadway in 2012, where it met with similar acclaim, racking up eight Tony awards of its 11 nominations, including Best Musical and Best Book, and also won the 2012 Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Musical.

The challenge of adapting a hit movie for the stage (and vice versa) is to preserve the essence that made it a success in the original medium. I’m happy to report that a new production of Once, mounted by Berkshire Theatre Group at The Colonial Theatre in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, succeeds in maintaining the charm and wistfulness of the film, with an additional dash of humor—largely thanks to a genial enable of actor/musicians—and the frisson that live music provides.

The ensemble does double duty, playing both instruments and roles, serving as the production’s orchestra and secondary characters. Photo by Emma K. Rothenberg Ware.

Adeptly directed by Gregg Edelman, with a versatile set by Josafath Reynoso that evokes a Dublin streetscape of poster-covered, artfully aged building facades and an archetypical Irish pub, the stage version of Once is not a typical musical. Because music is central to the drama, the songs fit naturally into the story’s arc—for example, the characters might be busking on that Dublin street, trying out a tune in music store, playing in that pub, demonstrating the merits of the protagonist’s music to a banker who holds the purse strings for a loan that will buy precious studio time, or laying down tracks for a demo CD.

The secondary characters don’t break into pyrotechnic song and dance; rather, they provide the live music, serving as the orchestra and chorus for the show. In a departure from the film, many of the these characters just happen to be musicians, and they play a larger role in the narrative. When not involved in specific scenes, they sit at the bar or sidewalk tables, instruments in hand, ready to add some harmony to the action downstage.

That ensemble also helps transport the audience to Dublin, in tandem with the scenic design. As we enter, ten musicians are engaged in a session, singing lively Irish tunes, playing fiddles, guitars, accordion, fiddles, and guitars, percussion setting the tempo. Location is also indicated by an actual bar near the stage, where the audience can queue up for some Guinness (or Irish Coffee) before the play begins and again at intermission.

The protagonists—Guy and Girl, Dublin-born and Czech immigrant—meet on the street while he’s busking. She is drawn to his music, just as he decides to pack up his guitar and pack it in as a singer/songwriter. She encourages him not to give up on his songs, and also not to give up on the ex-girlfriend he wrote them for, even though the ex has broken his heart and moved to New York. As she collaborates with him on a passel of love songs, they grow close, drawn together by music and humor.

It turns out they make beautiful music together; while the love songs were written for his ex, within days it’s clear they express Guy’s feelings for Girl, even as she continues to push him to pursue the ex in New York. Girl tells Guy he has unfinished business, and she has some of her own, in the form of her young daughter who lives with her in Dublin—along with her mother and a rambunctious crew of fellow Czechs who share the flat—plus a husband back home. Which is why she’s also trying to deny her feelings for Guy.

Girl (Andrea Gross) lives in a cramped Dublin flat with her daughter, mother, and a jovial group of Czech immigrants. Photo by Jacey Rae Russell.

As Girl, Andrea Gross carries her diminutive frame stiffly, as appropriate for a self-described always-serious Czech—even that phrase conveys her wry sense of humor, which Gross winningly portrays. David Toole’s Guy is just as he should be: soulful, handsome, funny, a balance of self-doubt and self-confidence, and longing for love.

The secondary characters deserve special recognition: Adam Huel Potter as blustery, beefy, bog-hearted Billy, who owns the music store where Girl goes to play piano, provides comic relief from the romance without overdoing the kung-fu slapstick, expressing the passion of his Spanish side and the quick-wittedness of his Irish side. Andy Taylor lends additional levity as the Banker who secretly writes songs (albeit bad ones) and longs to be a guitar hero. (Taylor does double duty as the production’s musical director.) Pearl Rhein’s Reza steals her scenes as a would-be siren intent on marrying an Irishman and becoming a citizen, and Shani Hadija has great presence as Baruska, Girl’s mother; in addition, she wields a mean accordion. I’m sure I’m not the only one who saw a bit of Sesame Street’s Animal in Will Boyajian’s portrayal of drummer Svec.

Reza (Pearl Rhein) aims to seduce Billy (Adam Hunt) as the Banker (Andy Taylor) strums in the background. Photo by Jacey Rae Russell.

The lighting and sound design (by Matthew Adelson and Nathan Leigh, respectively) effectively evoke changes in location and mood, particularly in some wistful seaside scenes. All elements work together with assured direction to produce a sweet, romantic show, absent of villains or rancor yet full of emotional generosity, longing, and regret for what might have been. This gentle, charming production is a balm in contentious times.

Girl and Guy are made for each other… but not destined to be together. Photo by Jacey Rae Russell.

Berkshire Theatre Group’s production of Once runs at the Colonial Theatre in Pittsfield, Massachusetts through July 16.i


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