The musical Once (book by Enda Walsh, music and lyrics by Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová) sweeps into South Coast Repertory trailing clouds of glory, first as a film that earned the 2007 Independent Spirit Award for Best Foreign Film, the Oscar for Best Original Song (“Falling Slowly), and a Grammy nomination for the film’s soundtrack. As a Broadway musical, Once’s provenance is burnished with eleven Tony nominations and eight wins, including Best Musical, Best Actor and Best Book; the 2012 Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Musical; and the 2012 Grammy award for Best Musical Theater Album. After a run of 1,167 regular performances and twenty-two previews on Broadway, the show went on to tour North America, and then the world. As exemplified by the South Coast production, brilliantly directed by Kent Nicholson, the show is pure gold deserving all its accolades and then some.
The cast of twelve quadruple, world-class threats as actors, singers, musicians and dancers, envelopes the audience with warmth and emotion that begins when the audience enters the auditorium to claim their seats. The over-arching setting, a Dublin Bar, realized with exquisite detail by scenic designer Ralph Funicello, is so inviting that some audience members step up onstage to buy drinks as the cast warms up by jamming with enthusiasm, singing and playing their instruments with gusto. There are violins, sometimes best to call them fiddles, guitars of many kind, a mandolin, a ukulele, cello, rhythm boxes, and a piano that becomes a key component of the story. (I have it on authority that anyone may go onstage, but to have a drink there, patrons must purchase a drinks wristband at the lobby bar. Patrons then show their wristband to the on-stage bartender who marks it and provides their drink.)
As this goes on, a guy slips through the upstage door of the pub and quietly leans by the bar with a guitar. Eventually the audience members are moved off stage and back to their seats under the watchful eye of a stage manager. The house lights go down and Guy (Rustin Cole Sailors) steps downstage and launches into the lover’s lament, “Leave,” and we are into the story. A Czech woman (Irish and Czechs have a deep and abiding relationship that has endured for centuries) listens and becomes enchanted with his talent. This Girl (Amanda Leigh Jerry) is also a musician and makes music with a piano she wished she could own. It would be disservice to detail the progress of their relationship—it is well known that “the course of true love never did run smooth”—and so it is here. It is an engrossing story filled with yearning and emotion, and, at least for this poor sap of a scribbler, wonderfully affecting.
With the bar serving as backdrop, much like a Greek theatre, scenes are set in various locales with inventive simplicity. The cast moves everything, men and women heaving substantial tables around to form a bed or a platform or a Cliffside, or whatever is needed. The scenes are set in the Guy’s home where he lives with his recently widowed Da (Scott Waara), a little flat above the families vacuum repair shop; in the Girl’s home where she lives with other Czech immigrants, including her mother Baruska (Diane King Vann), daughter Ivonka (Jacqueline Vellandi) who alternates with Aoife McEvoy), and flat mates Reza (Cassidy Stirtz), Andrej (Alex Nee), and Svec (Zach Spound); in a failing music store owned by Billy (Nicholas Mongiardo-Cooper) where the precious piano resides; and in a recording studio run by Eamon (Scott Anthony). In other scenes, Christian Pedersen serves as the emcee of an open-mike night, Marnina Schon is Guy’s ex-girlfriend, and Andy Taylor scores some laughs as a bank manager with musical ambitions and also proves beyond doubt that one does not have to sit to play a rockin’ cello.
As one has come to expect at South Coast, the show is impeccably, if not lavishly, produced with vigorous, grounded choreography by Kelly Todd; costumes by Leah Piehl that enhance story and character; lighting by Lap Chi Chu that does far more than illuminate; and a superb sound design by Lindsay Jones.
Once is not to be missed. It is a joyous celebration of the conundrum of love and art. Once runs through September 30 on the Segerstrom Stage at South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa. So worth a drive from wherever you are.