BWW Review: ONCE: Guy and Girl Extend Their Stay at SpeakEasy Stage
Book by Enda Walsh, Music & Lyrics by Glen Hansard & Markéta Irglová, Based on the Motion Picture Written and Directed by John Carney, Directed by Paul Melone, Music Direction by Steven Ladd Jones, Choreography by Ilyse Robbins; Scenic Design, Eric Levenson; Costume Design, Rachel Padula-Shufelt; Lighting Design, Karen Perlow; Sound Design, Andrew Duncan Will; Production Stage Manager, L. Arkansas Light; Assistant Stage Manager, Lauren Burke
CAST (in alphabetical order): Jacob Brandt, Billy Butler, Clara Cochran, Chris Coffey, Reagan Gardiner, Nile Scott Hawver, Mackenzie Lesser-Roy, Billy Meleady, Robert X. Newman, Marta Rymer, Stephen Shore, Jeff Song, Kathy St. George, Ellie van Amerongen
Performances extended through April 7 by SpeakEasy Stage Company at Roberts Studio Theatre, Calderwood Pavilion, Boston Center for the Arts, 527 Tremont Street, Boston, MA; Box Office 617-933-8600 or www.SpeakEasyStage.com
Once upon a time, a guy and a girl meet on the streets of Dublin, bond over their shared passion for music, enrich each other's lives, and find the way forward to the separate paths that their lives were meant to follow. First a 2007 Irish film, Once became a stage musical with a workshop production at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge in 2011, transferred Off-Broadway later the same year, and wound up on Broadway in 2012. The little-musical-that-could won eight Tony Awards, including Best Musical, and has gone on to tour nationally, as well as have international productions. With its current homegrown production, SpeakEasy Stage Company demonstrates once again its penchant for capturing the essence of an award-winning musical and successfully molding it to fit the expectations of their audience and the parameters of the Roberts Studio Theatre at the Boston Center for the Arts.
Created as an ensemble piece with a simple unit design concept, Once is a perfect fit for SpeakEasy's mission to produce "intimate, entertaining plays and musicals." Director Paul Melone had no trouble filling out the cast with multi-talented Boston actors, many of whom are making their SpeakEasy debuts, who meet the requirement to sing and play at least one musical instrument. The actor/musicians are under the music direction of Steven Ladd Jones and, as the orchestra, most of them remain on the fringes of the stage even when their characters are not central to the scene. Despite no conductor being visible to the audience, the players show no signs of confusion or missed downbeats, and organically come together to make great music.
Once is the story of Guy (Nile Scott Hawver), a Dublin street musician who is stuck both personally and professionally, and Girl (Mackenzie Lesser-Roy), a plucky, persistent Czech immigrant who is in the process of sorting out some fissures in her family. After hearing Guy sing "Leave," one of his own melancholy compositions, and start to walk away from his guitar, Girl begins to intervene in his life. When she learns that he repairs vacuum cleaners, she gets her foot in the door by presenting her non-functioning Hoover and following him to the shop where he works for his father (Billy Meleady). Although she really needs it to be fixed, it is a ruse to connect with Guy and set herself up to become his muse. From that point on, through a series of gentle nudges and no-nonsense shoves, whichever seems called for, Girl encourages Guy to work on his music, continue to remain in contact with his girlfriend who moved to New York, and to generally grow up.
Girl lives with her irrepressible mother Baruska (Kathy St. George, also irrepressible) and her young daughter Ivonka (alternately played by Clara Cochran and Reagan Gardiner, the latter at this performance), whose father lives elsewhere. Girl happens to be a terrific pianist without a piano, so she visits a local shop where the proprietor (Billy Butler) lets her play because he has a crush on her. When she brings Guy to the shop, her playing moves him so much that he agrees to pick up his almost-discarded guitar to play another of his songs with her (Academy Award-winner "Falling Slowly"). The music peels away their defenses and reveals their emotions, giving them a deeper understanding of each other's hurts, fears, and dreams.
Hawver and Lesser-Roy meld together nicely. His brooding is no match for her sparkle, and he gives in to it without much of a struggle. He is an accomplished guitar player and wears his instrument like a bodily appendage. She is a classically-trained musician and played Girl in the national tour of Once and her performance is informed by her experience in the role. They play the leads, but don't stand above the rest of the cast; rather they take their places within the ensemble and share in the authenticity of the group camaraderie.
The hallmarks of Once, with book by Enda Walsh and music and lyrics by Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová, are the simplicity of its story and its message of the power of music. The collaborative feeling among the actor/musicians is palpable, especially during the pre-show when they're all onstage playing and singing together as if they're hanging out at a pub. Standouts include Marta Rymer (Reza) on violin, Ellie van Amerongen (ex-girlfriend) for vocals and dance, and Jeff Song as the bank manager who thinks he can be a singer/songwriter. Rounding out the ensemble are Jacob Brandt, Chris Coffey, Robert X. Newman, and Stephen Shore.
Ilyse Robbins' choreography is organic, perfectly suited to the music and the down to earth nature of the production. She makes good use of limited space and incorporates chairs and tables into some of the dancing. Eric Levenson (scenic design) employs rustic materials (faux brick and wood flooring) and has instruments hanging from walls and pillars. Karen Perlow's lighting design suggests different locations and Andrew Duncan Will effectively mixes the sound for a good balance between vocals and instruments. Rachel Padula-Shufelt's costume designs are varied and help define the characters.
Melone's greatest success is that the show seems to get along fine without him. What I mean by that is the way everything comes together to give the appearance of just a bunch of buskers hanging out in a pub, drinking, singing, and playing their music. Of course, the reality is that Melone and Ladd Jones have their fingerprints all over this, that it appears seamless because of the work they put in, as well as the contributions of a great ensemble of actors. Once is connecting with the audience because of the power of music and the universality of its story. In fact, SpeakEasy Stage announced today that the run is being extended for an additional week due to overwhelming demand.
Photo credit: Maggie Hall Photography (Billy Meleady, Kathy St. George, and the cast of Once)