Theater Review: “Once” — Everything Goes Brilliantly Right

By David Greenham

Once is a wonderful musical and the Speakeasy Stage production does exquisitely right by its considerable merits.

Once, book by Edna Walsh and music and lyrics by Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová. Based on the film written and directed by John Carney. Directed by Paul Melone. Music direction by Steven Ladd Jones. Choreography by Illyse Robbins. Scenic design by Eric Levenson, costume design by Rachel Paula-Shufelt. Lighting design by Karen Perlow. Sound design by Andrew Duncan Will. Staged by SpeakEasy Stage Company at the Calderwood Pavilion at the Boston Center for the Arts, 527 Tremont Street, Boston, MA, through April 7.

Nile Scott Hawver and Mackenzie Lesser-Roy in the SpeakEasy Stage Company production of “Once.” Photo: Maggie Hall Photography.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the odds of being struck by lightning are 1 in about 700,000. Well, back in October, Evelyn Rosenthal, my colleague at the Arts Fuse, was effusive in her praise of SpeakEasy Stage Company’s production of Fun Home. She reported that the staging was “marvelous,” adding, “There are too many delights to this show and this production to mention.”

So perhaps what we have here is a miracle, theatrically speaking. Speakeasy Stage, in a single season, has mounted two near-to-perfect productions. This beautiful presentation of Once brings all of the show’s elements  — visual, musical, and emotional — together into an affecting partnership. Nothing stands in the way of the story’s power.

But is this so miraculous an accomplishment? After all, Once is a Tony-award winning love story that features an Academy-award winning song. The musical is an orchard of low hanging fruit. But this unusual love story, which takes place over just a single week, could easily be weighted down by the sugary and predictable. Once requires a deft hand and a gentle touch to be genuinely touching about the many shades of passion.

The premise is as simple as it is implausible. A lonely Irish Guy (Nile Scott Hawver) has become sick of a life confined to repairing vacuum cleaners with his widowed dad, Da (Billy Meleady). He’s written numerous love songs to his ex-girlfriend (Ellie van Amerongen), but his heart is no longer in them. The plot kicks off when he sings his last song, “Leave.” The tune ends, he puts down his guitar, and resolves to stop making music. The Girl (Mackenzie Lesser-Roy) overhears the song, and insists that this performance is a beginning, not an an end: “That song you play – is it yours?” When he doesn’t answer, she persists, “I know you can talk, I just heard you sing – unless you cannot talk and only sing.” She is unmoved by his silence: “If you want, you can sing me the answer to my question….” Over the course of the next seven days we’ll learn as much as we need to about the Guy, the Girl, and their friends and family.

Once first came to Boston as a workshop at the A.R.T, in 2011. It eventually earned eight Tony Awards, including Best Musical. The show returned to Boston on its post-Broadway tour, but the Speakeasy Stage production marks the first time Once is being produced in the city using mostly local performers and creative staff.

What makes the show distinctive is that all the performers must be accomplished musicians. Music is a major character in Once; mostly Irish folk music, though there are influences from Eastern Europe as well. The Girl and her family members, her mother Baruska (Kathy St. George), brothers Svec (Chris Coffey) and Andrej (Jacob Brandt), and her sister Reza (Marta Rymer) are all from the Czech Republic. There’s also Ivonka (played alternately by Clara Cochran and Reagan Gardiner), the Girl’s young daughter.

Early in the second act, Reza announces “what could be more important than love?” But, be warned, Once is not your run-of-the-mill romantic comedy. There are things in life that, at times, are more important than love. Despite our hopes and dreams, life-altering experiences are often valuable because they remain just out of reach.

Once’s score, which centers on the haunting and magical hit “Falling Slowly,” is consistently engaging. The ensemble shines in “Gold,” the song that ends the first act. The tune is later reprised as an a cappella hymn, which provides one of the finest moments in the Speakeasy Stage production.

The ensemble is filled with strong musicians, their disciplined voices blending like aged whisky. The accomplished creative team — director Paul Melone, music director Steven Ladd Jones, and choreographer Ilyse Robbins — bring a lively rhythm to the proceedings. This staging knows when to sit quietly and when to explode into song — and how to make the most of the  show’s nuances.

The design team has created an ideal canvas for this musical. The intimate Roberts Studio Theatre is transformed into a brick pillared cubby-hole  containing a variety of wooden, straight back chairs, instruments hanging on the wall, a grand piano, and a drum kit set on a rolling platform. The minimal setting is impressively flexible, seamlessly metamorphosing from a Dublin street to the Guy’s shop, the Girl’s apartment, Billy’s (Billy Butler) music store, the Bank Manager’s (Jeff Song) office, the Emcee’s (Robert X. Newman) open mic club, Eamon’s (Stephen Shore) music studio, and even the seaside cliff walk in Howth. Eric Levenson’s set, Karen Perlow’s lights, Rachel Padula-Shufelt’s costumes, and Andrew Duncan Will’s sound design play a vital part in creating the show’s compelling harmony.

The chemistry between the leads Nile Scott Hawver and Mackenzie Lesser-Roy holds the delicate facets of this lovely musical valentine together. Hawver creates a charmingly reluctant, love-sick Guy. Lesser-Roy embodies the unassuming but resilient determination of the Girl. She seems comfortable with every emotional shift in the role, no doubt thanks in part to the fact that she performed the role in a recent national tour.

Once is a wonderful musical and the Speakeasy Stage production does exquisitely right by its considerable merits. By the Arts Fuse’s count, the company has hit the bull’s eye more than once in one season. What are the odds of that?

David Greenham is an adjunct professor of Drama at the University of Maine at Augusta, and is the Program Director for the Holocaust and Human Rights Center of Maine. He spent 14 years leading the Theater at Monmouth, and has been a theater artist and arts administrator in Maine for more than 25 years.

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