Review by Karen Topham, American Theatre Critics Association member; photos by Liz Lauren
You walk into the theatre and an Irish band is playing enthusiastically onstage, playing with extraordinary energy and joy, playing for themselves as much as for the incoming audience. The exuberant musicians jump and dance along with their music, laugh and generally have a great time. And it’s contagious: the show has not even begun, the house lights are still on, but Once is seeping into your soul. If you’re early enough, you can even get a beer or whiskey from the ‘bar” onstage. (Or you can wait until intermission, when it is once again open for business.) But whether or not you avail yourself of that opportunity, you can’t help getting caught up in the music.
Once is about the music. It is not a traditional musical where songs have lyrics that move the plot along, people break into choreographed dance, and the music comes from unseen players in a pit. In this musical, the songs are the whole raison d’etre, the carefully choreographed dance is seemingly spontaneous, the story is pretty clear from the start, and the actors all play their own instruments. Based on the movie of the same name starring Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová (who wrote all of the songs), it is the tale of a vacuum cleaner-fixing busker (the unnamed Guy, played by Barry DeBois, who played the role on the national tour) who is broken by his love’s move to America and is ready to give up on music entirely. (There is a hint that he is even suicidal.) Then along comes the equally unnamed Girl, the Irglová character played here by Tiffany Topol (understudy for the part on that same tour). From the instant she sees him and hears him play, she makes it her life mission to help him to get past his funk by making his music.
Girl is related to the Manic Pixie Dreamgirls who populated movies a decade or so ago: she is full of energy and enthusiasm, she gives without needing recompense, she possesses preternatural self-confidence and a wonderfully sarcastic sense of humor, she never gives in even if the odds are ridiculous, and somehow everything she plans comes to fruition even if she has no way to make it happen when she first promises it. Where she differs from them is fundamental: she has a child and is still in a quasi-relationship with her daughter’s father. So, as is the case with many movie characters of her type (think Eternal Sunshine or 500 Days of Summer or Garden State), no matter how much these two may fall in love (“Falling Slowly,” as the show’s most famous song puts it), even a Manic Pixie Dreamgirl can’t keep them together. To her credit, like many of her type, who are in this for the now more than the later, she recognizes this from the start and sets as one of her goals that he should go to America to chase down his girl. (Yes, of course it happens: she’s a Manic…well, you get it.)
But even if their love is doomed to be ephemeral (and unconsummated), the relationship between these two compelling characters makes for wonderful watching. When she isn’t pulling a vacuum cleaner out of thin air to provide a logical basis for them to remain together, she’s immediately ingratiating herself to his father or finding a piano to play or dragging him to the tavern where most of this is set—a place full of joyous and infectious music. And as he (slowly) falls for her, the chemistry between the two of them carries the show.
Much of that can be credited to DeBois and Topol, who fit together perfectly from the beginning and whose path we become quickly invested in, even as we are sure of where it is going to lead. The two actors are so winning in their personalities (even when Guy is depressed) that you can’t help rooting for them, the fact that Girl continually makes it clear that she wants him to go to America notwithstanding. I saw Once in New York with Chicago actress Jessie Fisher in the role (she was brilliant), but Topol easily makes the role her own. Her near-constant smile is so fabulous that, in sadder parts of the show when it is missing, it is like part of her soul is fading. And DeBois’ passion shimmers when he is singing; it is very easy to see why this Girl would fall (slowly) for him as well.
Director Jim Corti makes full use of Jeffrey D. Kmiec’s two-story set, using its higher level for particularly poignant moments. In the tavern, he has his actors (as they did in New York), lurking in the background of scenes they are not directly involved in, ready to come in with an instrument or a vocal, which are beautifully highlighted by Nick Belley’s lighting design. It is a fine ensemble, and Corti manages to provide nice moments for almost everyone, but a few players really stand out. John Patrick Penick is brilliant as the boisterous Billy, a music store owner who, despite being really sweet, is also quick to arouse to anger. Alex E. Hardaway has a wonderful bit as a bank manager who wants to be a singer. Nik Kmiecik earns sympathy as Andrej, who desperately wants a promotion at work. Cassidy Stirtz is a fiery Reza and Jenn Chandler is a heartfelt ex-girlfriend. And little Everleigh Murphy absolutely steals every scene she is in as Ivonka. (Watch her when her “mother” is playing the piano; she’s wonderful.)
Once is a show I wish I could see more than…um…once. My schedule doesn’t permit it, sadly, but if I could fill my week seeing this show every night I’d be about as happy as humanly possible. Even without a traditional happy ending, this celebration of a man’s love of music and a woman’s elation in giving it back to him is a production full of joy. I didn’t fall slowly for it; I fell hard. It is simply brilliant.
Once is a Paramount Theatre production now playing at the Paramount Theatre in Aurora through June 3. Times vary, so you’d best check the website. Tickets can be purchased from Paramount Theatre.