BWW Review: 3-D Theatricals' Deeply Heartfelt ONCE Spreads the Love All Around
The experience of seeing the Grammy and Tony Award-winning stage adaptation of ONCE - THE MUSICAL begins the minute you enter the theatre as you make your way to your assigned seat.
No matter which iteration you may have seen-whether it was its original 2012 Broadway production, its subsequent first national tour, or perhaps locally in a recent regional theatre production-the show starts with a welcoming, celebratory environment where music is communally enjoyed by both the talented artists on stage and the audience who have come to immerse themselves in this euphoric special space. What's awesome is that this feeling never truly goes away.
Just imagine walking into a friendly neighborhood bar filled with a handful of accomplished musicians, jamming together in a seemingly spontaneous bit of improvising with each other, allowing these live, in-the-now moments to dictate the direction of their shared artistry.
This is the feeling of synergetic glee and fulfillment one experiences when enveloped inside the world of ONCE - THE MUSICAL, the remarkably poignant, touching stage show about the ways music can inspire, attract, and bring people together in more ways than one. An impassioned stage adaptation of the similarly-titled 2007 indie film, the musical expands on the well-liked movie written and directed by John Carney, this time incorporating more songs composed by the film's original songwriting duo (and featured main actors) Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová, now paired with a riveting book by Enda Walsh.
Currently, a brilliantly-staged, can't-miss new regional production has just emerged in Southern California by way of 3-D Theatricals under the thoughtful, eloquent direction of Kari Hayter. Hurry, though, because performances of this impressive, Broadway-caliber local revival continue at the Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts only through October 27, 2019.
Presented in the round-in that the stage is placed at the center of the theater, viewable from all angles and surrounded on all sides by stadium-like seating for the audience-Hayter's iteration of ONCE - THE MUSICAL is meaningful in both its execution and its purposeful presentation. Like life itself, the show is insightfully viewed from multiple angles, allowing audiences to experience what characters are willing to present and hide from one another, particularly our two main characters-who happen to be two people with several suitcases filled with emotions.
At the same time, because the music featured in the show is such an organic, three-dimensional outburst of unbound creativity and talent, a single-facing stage, frankly, just doesn't do its material justice. By presenting the show in the round, the feeling of community and immersion truly becomes enmeshed into the DNA of the show, not only for the characters but for the audience watching as well.
In some cases, depending on where you're seated, you're privy to a certain view of the story, but during instances when the audience needs to be a busy-body fly on the wall, the stage's turntable spins around at carefully curated moments, creating a virtual buffet of framing of all the action from different, contextual angles. One second, you're witnessing the moment when someone discovers they are falling in love with someone, the next, you're confronted with a view of someone else in deep pain. The audience gets to see it all even if the characters involved do not have the same privilege.
To put it simply, 3-D Theatricals' wonderful reproduction of ONCE - THE MUSICAL is a 360-degree triumph of pure stage magic, filled with raw, searing emotions, endearingly likable characters, and spectacular musical performances that make this one of 3D-Theatricals' most deeply heartfelt productions to date.
Like the film that inspired it, the stage adaptation introduces us to two meant-to-meet people who truly needed each other before they even entered into each others' lives. That idea that people "come into our lives for a reason" is beautifully demonstrated in the musical-and is even courteously extended to various periphery characters that become part of the ongoing main narrative.
When the show "officially" begins, we first meet the Guy (the very talented Tom Frank) a brooding hipster armed with a guitar and tons of emo, passionately singing a song he wrote at the local pub. The handsome but tortured Guy-still hurting from the breakup with an ex who's now living in New York and is the inspiration for much of his repertoire-is a tall, mild-mannered vacuum repairman by day and a struggling busker/aspiring singer-songwriter at night. As expected, he is less outwardly expressive in conversations, but is apparently more at ease pouring his guts out via song.
This particularly opportune evening's courageous musical confessional just so happens to be witnessed by the Girl (the captivating Aurora Florence) who walks into the pub and is immediately struck by the Guy's song (and, perhaps, by the Guy himself). Unlike the Guy, the Girl isn't shy to speak her mind (she's actually refreshingly but brutally outspoken), though she is surprisingly encumbered by her own musical prowess, urging others instead to express their musical talents. She has a distinct appreciation for music and the arts and knows talent when she sees/hears it.
Endearingly bossy, the very forward Girl---who speaks with a heavy Czech accent, because, well she's a Czech immigrant-interrogates the Guy about his music and demands to hear more. He refuses, saying that his pain is just too much and wants to quit music altogether, deciding to focus instead on his day job.
In a fortuitous stroke of luck, the Girl just happens to have a non-"sucking" Hoover vacuum that needs repair (which she instantly produces out of nowhere). She barks at the Guy that she will play the piano for him as payment for repairing her broken vacuum repair. Unable to throw back his refusal, the Guy accompanies the Girl to a nearby music shop owned by the Girl's friend Billy (Chuck McLane). Billy has an unrequited (yet unhidden) crush on the Girl, which she shrewdly (but harmlessly) uses as a way for her to be allowed to play the piano at the shop occasionally. The Girl dreams of one day owning one of her own, but she simply can't afford to buy one at the moment.
Still reluctant to play a song for the very demanding Girl, she snoops inside the Guy's satchel and pulls out sheet music to, apparently, another song he has written. She begins playing the first few chords of the songs (which happens to be the show's infamous song "Falling Slowly") and soon Guy gives in, picks up his guitar to play the song alongside her, which she, of course, harmonizes with him.
The song, by the way, somehow triggers something in me every time. Pretty soon, as always, tears start flowing as I witness the pair beautifully perform the song with such palpable longing and heartbreaking pathos. Frank and Florence sound amazing in their duet-and are showing signs that they are falling, uh, slowly for each other as well.
Impressed by the song, the Girl suggests to the Guy that the powerful emotions of his song might just be the solution to win her ex-girlfriend back. Though, clearly, we can all see that some feelings are brewing between our two main characters right here and now.
As part of their unofficial deal, the Guy decides to honor her payment of playing piano for him by repairing her broken vacuum. He takes her to their family-owned shop where the Girl meets the Guy's Da (Scott Waara, reprising his endearing performance from South Coast Repertory's equally brilliant local production from 2017). After sharing some pleasantries, the Guy takes the Girl to his bedroom upstairs above the shop to have her, uh, listen to some of his homemade song recordings.
An apparent miscalculation of the evening's activities prompts the Guy to kiss the Girl, but she quickly rebuffs him with no explanation. He is just as swiftly forgiven the next day, also with no explanation.
She is instead focusing on the task at hand: to collaborate musically with the Guy, offering to write lyrics to his wordless compositions with the end goal of producing a demo CD to be distributed around to record companies-maybe even record companies in New York where he can, in the Girl's words, win his girl back.
Why is the Girl so adamant in getting the Guy to get back with his ex when she's falling in love with him, too? I mean, she's not exactly shy about expressing her feelings otherwise, why is this so difficult?
She claims the reason why she thinks the Guy should reconcile his ex is because the passion that inspired Guy's songs means he's still madly in love with his ex. But all this could also, perhaps, be just the Girl's way to keep things on a professional level-she's trying her best to squelch her feelings for the Guy because she herself is already married to another man, whom she has a young child with named Ivanka (the adorable Quinn Copeland).
Whatever the underlying reasons may be, the collaborative partnership between the Guy and the Girl (alongside their hastily assembled ad hoc band) proves to be a harmonious, beneficial one, as the two continue pursuing a creative partnership rather than a romantic one. But is the latter eventually going to happen anyway? I mean, geez, the show is certainly making a very good case for the two to be together... why not? The eventual answer-if you've never seen the movie or this stage musical-will surprise you, because despite what happens, the ending remains, for me and for the many who cheered during the show's opening night press performance, a very satisfying, hopeful one even with such bittersweet undertones.
A beautiful, richly layered production, 3-D Theatricals' brand new production of ONCE - THE MUSICAL is one of the most enjoyable productions I have seen mounted by this wonderfully can-do regional theater company, that frequently bests even Broadway touring companies' productions of the same properties. Though the production didn't use the expected "pub" set (which in some earlier productions served as a working bar where audience members can literally walk up on stage to order drinks), Stephen Gifford's minimalist scenic design anchored to the production's turntable-enabled in-the-round staging manages to convey separate unique spaces for each of the locations in the show. Jean-Yves Tessier's lighting design plays a huge part in the creation of these spaces as well, providing focus to locations and the accompanying mood for each emotional touchpoint. Linda Love Simmons even provides subtle, hypnotically choreographed moments that feel like time is intermittently paused and the emotions swirling all around are "whipping" characters into succumbing to their surroundings.
With everything and all exposed for the audience to see in-the-round, concealed props and multipurpose stage elements by Gretchen Morales and Melanie Cavaness keep the show grounded in an almost decipherable yet still ethereal reality. Instruments, of course, are always at the ready, since this entire brilliant cast not only sing the songs in the show, they also play all the instruments heard throughout, making ONCE - THE MUSICAL a challenge for any musical theater actor to take on.
And, my gosh, what a talented bunch this is. As individual actors, each brings distinctive qualities to their respective portraits. Collectively, they are simply outstanding. Their stirring, goosebumps-inducing a cappella version of the "Gold" reprise is stunning that I merely uttered wow under my breath the second it was over.
Frank (who also plays guitar) and Florence (who also plays piano) are just excellent as the story's star-crossed would-be lovers turned fruitful and satisfying creative partners. Both also have incredible singing voices that are bathed in distinctive vulnerability and emotional authenticity. Singing together or in their respective solos, both actors should be super proud of their stunning work in this production.
Encircling them (literally and figuratively) with welcome character and musical support is an ensemble cast that also includes Andy Taylor as the bank manager turned cello player for the band, whose rivalry with Mclane's manic Billy provides some amusing moments; and the Girl's TV-obsessed brothers Andrej and Svec (the memorable Andrew Huber and musical director David Lamoureux, respectively) who join the band after only mild urging from the Girl (they too believe in his noble pursuits).
The rest of the terrific company includes Cynthia Marty (accordion and piano) who also plays the Girl's mother, Leota Rhodes (violin), Erich Schroeder (guitar, percussion), Cameron Tagge (guitar, piano, and melodica), and Katherine Washington (violin). When the show finally barrels toward its ugly-cry inducing conclusion, the entire cast, in rousing jubilee, whips the entire theater into a musical frenzy that once again reiterates the idea of a communally shared joy that music can bring. I have a feeling this euphoria and celebratory feeling is not an anomaly with this production.
Much in the same way I was deeply affected by the production I saw in 2017 at South Coast Repertory, I found myself similarly inexplicably drawn in and emotionally invested in these seemingly ordinary people's activities, particularly in these more purposefully "intimate" productions of this musical where the emotions are much more within reach.
I cared for them. I wanted the best for them. I wanted them all to be happy. I wanted them to revel in the success of their creative endeavors. Hell, at times, I even wanted to join in. That's the true collective power of music... and the true power of this small but significant stage musical. Theatrically understated yet emotionally powerful at every turn, ONCE - THE MUSiCAL posits the idea that love for shared artistic pursuits can sometimes be just as fulfilling as romantic ones.
Follow this reviewer on Twitter: @cre8iveMLQ
Production Photographs by © Caught in the Moment Photography, courtesy of 3-D Theatricals.
Performances of 3-D Theatricals' ONCE - THE MUSICAL continue at the Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts through October 27, 2019. Shows are scheduled Thursdays - Saturdays at 8 pm, Saturday and Sunday matinees at 2 pm. The Cerritos Center is located at 18000 Park Plaza Drive, Cerritos, CA. Free parking available.