Wednesday, September 26, 2018

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 97, A Review: "Once" (Ivoryton Playhouse)

By James V. Ruocco

A story retold from a completely different perspective with a completely different cast and a brand new production team can make all the difference in the world.

Rarely, has this been so poignantly and remarkably conveyed than in Ivoryton Playhouse's smart, edgy and mesmerizing staging of the Broadway smash musical "Once," the engaging tale of two bruised souls whose lives are changed dramatically though music, song, inspiration and revelation.

Re-staged and retooled to fit the smart, intimate space that is Ivoryton, this incarnation of "Once," not only retains the magic and expressiveness of the original Broadway production, but, at times, dances to a decidedly different beat that is much more real, more folksy, more ethereal, more magical and more personal.

This is "Once" like you've never seen before.


It's almost like your seeing "Once" for the very first time.

Then and now, the stage version of "Once" is based on the acclaimed 2007 independent film of the same title, which was shot on a shoestring budget with the Irish Film Board for €112,000 and completed in just 17 days. It starred Glen Hansard, the lead singer of the Irish band "Frames" and Czech pianist Marketa Irglova, both of whom wrote all of  "Once's" original songs.

Not you typical musical, "Once" charts the simple story of a male busker musician who, through a chance meeting in Dublin, Ireland, meets a striking female European pianist and Czech emigre.  Naturally, both characters carry excessive baggage from troubled relationships (his girlfriend left Dublin and moved back to New York; she has a child and a husband, she may or may not reconcile with). The characters also share an outspokenness and brashness that is completely in sync with the times in addition to a passion for making music, making money and oh yes, the possibility of becoming or not becoming potential lovers.

The indie spirit of the film, mixed with an obvious, likeable story of two musicians who hope to strike Irish gold collaborating and recording their own songs, is the heart and soul of this stage version, which features an expanded book by Dublin-born playwright Enda Walsh ("Ballytork," "Misterman" and "The Ginger Ale Boy"). It is salty, flavorful, compulsive and well positioned.

The enlistment of Ben Hope as director/choreographer of "Once" is a match made in heaven. An actor himself, he made his Broadway debut in 2012 with "Once" and was featured in the production  (he also acted as understudy to the lead role of Guy and the supporting characters of Andrej, Svec and the Emcee) until it closed in 2015. So, who better than Hope to breathe new life into this acclaimed Broadway musical.

He's been in the show. He knows the show inside out, front and center, backwards and forwards. He knows what works and what doesn't. He also loves the show, its underlying themes, its characters, its music, its sentiment and its message about unfinished love.

But he's no copycat.
His interpretation of "Once" is as exhilarating as the Broadway production. But he takes chances with the material, mixing things up a bit ever so lightly by adding additional nuance and color to already  pivotal moments to brighten and heighten the original material's allure. It's a creative process that works most advantageously from start to finish and one that allows his production to stand tall on its own to feet and then some. Simply brilliant.

Doubling as choreographer, Hope is in his element, and well, she should be. His dance staging, Irish in every way imaginable, doesn't take its cue from traditional Broadway musicals, if only because the "Once" story and its characters doesn't adhere to that sort of rosy, often lavish choreographic interplay. Here, it's all about the moment, big or small, as the cast reenacts synchronized steps, beats,  poses and thumps that superbly reflect and signify the Irish traditions, history and social lineage of dance music and group song performances from Ireland. It's all very fascinating to watch as Hope sets the Ivoryton stage ablaze in very inspired, heartfelt ways that are ovation worthy at every turn. The fact that the entire cast doubles as the show's band (just look at their faces; they absolutely love it) is an added bonus that is addressed most creatively by Hope throughout the production.

Musical direction for "Once" is provided by the tremendously talented Eric Anthony whose credits include "Million Dollar Quartet," "Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story," "Ring of Fire" and "Stand By Your Man." Taking his cue from the show's savvy, street-smart creators, he builds and fashions musical numbers that project the folk-wisdom, Irish-grit, secret sadness, wise observations  and driven human emotion of the piece. Songs erupt naturally from the action without question or awkwardness, helped by the sheer energy and drive from cast members who step forth, in character, of course, to play a variety of instruments including the fiddle, the guitar, the accordion and the drums. It's all beautifully conveyed and exhibited under his expert guidance, both musically and dramatically.

The "Once" musical score contains 17 musicals numbers. They are "Leave," "Falling Slowly," "North Strand," "The Moon," "The Moon (reprise)," "El Pada Pada," "If You Want Me," "Broken Hearted Hoover Fixer Sucker Guy," "Say It To Me Now," "Abandoned in Bandon," "Gold," "Sleeping," "When Your Mind's Made Up," "The Hill," "Gold (A capella), "The Moon" and "Falling Slowly (reprise)."

As written by Glen Hansand and Marketa Irglova, the songs are pretty, alluring, driven, frenzied and enjoyable. Nothing looks or sounds out of place. Everything unfolds with pulse and purpose. The reprises and the ensemble numbers fit right in without any form of repetition. Anthony marvelously fulfills the intentions of the show's creators so magically and intuitively, there are times when you wish there was a "Replay" button so you can hear the songs again and again.

The heartfelt, show-stopping "Falling Slowly," which won the Academy Award for Best Song, still works its magic here. As does, the melodic "Leave," the romantic "If You Want Me" and the stirring, hypnotic ballad "The Hill." This production of "Once" also retains the score's edgy musical pronouncements, its splendid Irish roots and its sweet, tear-stained undercurrents. In short, what's not to like?.

Elsewhere, Anthony keeps a tight reign on the "Once" pre-show that has the cast take center stage  to sing, dance, howl, dash and kick as they play their own instruments in a lively, spirited manner that recalls those treasured, beloved Irish seisiuns. The songs. mainly rowdy drinking songs or sweet-sounding reflections are smart, fun and expertly performed. Whereas some productions tend to go overboard with the pre-show concept, here, everything is measured, steadied, shaken and stirred.

Because "Once" is a musical about two people who meet by chance in present-day Dublin, casting...the right casting, that absolutely essential in order for the love story (of sorts) to work, entice, excite and take effect without any candy floss sentiment or one-note romanticism.  Hope's  casting of the captivating Katie Barton and the emotionally centered Sam Sherwood as the Girl and the Guy (the show's romantic leads) not only gives this production of "Once" its heart and emotional backbone, but keeps the sweet-natured story grounded, driven and completely in focus without ever skipping a heartbeat.

Sam Sherwood who portrays the lead male character, simply known as Guy, has the necessary charm, handsomeness and Irish spirit necessary to keep the plot moving forward without any hitches or strained credulity. He's polished and professional and offers a multi-faceted character turn that is edgy, guarded, quirky, versatile, outspoken and kinda messed up. It's a role that is tailor-made for the actor and one that piques interest from moment he first appears on stage to sing the bittersweet "Leave" right up until the musical's tear-stained, justified conclusion at the end of Act II..

Musically, the actor can sell a song with capable, stirring power. Here, the "Once" vocal score suits his exceptional vocal range and style. When singing the already mentioned "Leave" or so many others that include "Say It To Me Now," "Sleeping" and "Falling Slowly," he never once misses a beat, a pause or a rhythm. Vocally, he sells the songs as written (he also plays guitar). He understands their value, their meaning and their emotional connection to the "Once" story and its evolution. As an actor, he also puts his own personal spin on every one of the vocals with a dash or two of old school charm, whimsy, cynicism, attitude, personality and Irish pub vigor thrown in for extra measure.

They don't come any better than Katie Barton, who plays the lead female character called the Girl, for story purposes. Acting wise, she is captivating and personable (she also plays the piano) and totally in sync with the creator's vision of the character she portrays. She possesses the Girl's winsomeness, tenderness, vulnerability, spark and mystery. She fills in all the colors runs with it. She is also the ideal sparring partner for the Guy, particularly when their characters clash, crash, burn, instigate, disagree, get a little too close, unravel or completely disconnect.

Vocally, the actress is in her her element. The "Once" score ideally strikes the right chord with Barton who brings a raw, personal intimacy to the proceedings. When singing "Falling Slowing" and "If You Want Me" with Sherwood or the swelling solo "The Hill, " she is a beguiling presence who sings with real power, sweetness and lovely confidence. It's impossible not to be moved.

The hand-picked supporting cast members are absolutely perfect and especially fine as actors, singers and musicians. They include Marcy McGuigan as Baruska, Margaret Dudasik as Reza, Andreina Kasper as Bank Manager, Jonathan Brown as Svec, Stephen G. Anthony as Billy, Morgan Morse as Andrej, Don Noble as Da, John Mervini as Eamon, Victoria Wepler as Emcee and  Rachel Mulcahy as Ex-Girlfriend. Every one of them loves being on stage performing, observing, listening, singing and dancing. Their joyous, heartfelt unity heightens the "Once" story, their role in its telling and their interaction with the two main characters.

Technically, "Once" is superior. The set design, by Glenn Bassett, which includes multiple doors, passageways and set pieces that fall smartly into place (via the actors) when required, is colorful, atmospheric and well positioned. Marcus Abbott's lighting palate richly conveys the beauty, intimacy and pulse of the musical's surroundings and the character-driven story. The costumes, handsomely crafted by Cully Long, looked lived-in, as well they should be.

In conclusion, "Once" is yet another musical triumph for Ivoryton Playhouse, offset by a sparkling, well-chosen season line-up that has included "The Fantasticks," "A Night With Janis Joplin," "Grease" and the recent "A Chorus Line." It is a haunting, captivating entertainment of distinctive, emotional power, skillfully shaped and honed by director/choreographer Ben Hope. Eric Anthony's  musical direction smartly reflects the Irish spunk, spirit and romanticism set forth by the show's creators. The entire cast never once (no pun, intended) misses a beat. And when it's over, you can't, unfortunately, hit "Replay." But you can, however, buy tickets to another performance and experience (once again) the magic, the allure and the brilliance of this Tony Award-winning musical for a second or third time. You won't be the only one seduced by this now cherished cult musical favorite. It simply cannot be helped.

"Once" is being staged at Ivoryton Playhouse (103 Main St., Ivoryton, CT), now through October 14.
For tickets or more information, call (860) 767-7318

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