BWW Review: South Coast Repertory Raises Hopeful, Exquisite New Production of ONCE

In the few times I have seen the Tony Award-winning stage musical adaptation of writer/director John Carney's well-liked indie film ONCE a few years ago, I was consistently enamored by its beautiful musicality and its stirring narrative that centered around two artists that fortuitously find each other at a time when they both needed each other the most. While I never saw the original 2012 Broadway production, I did see its inevitable national tour, which, by all accounts, was an excellent production (which I first reviewed HERE) that brought Enda Walsh's book and Glen Hansard and Market Irglová's wonderful music and lyrics to glorious life in a traveling format. Needless to say, ONCE is a musical that I have liked quite a bit, though not significantly enough to merit a place amongst my all-time favorites.

But, honestly, it took seeing South Coast Repertory's brand new regional production---now on stage in Costa Mesa through September 30---for me to not only like it, but to truly adore it. From casting to staging and everything in between, SCR's enjoyable new mounting, under the astute direction of Kent Nicholson, is somehow much more emotional, thoughtful, and remarkably riveting than I remember it. I don't recall ever loving the show or being as invested in the story as I am here in this regional Orange County production. And though, yes, it is essentially the same source material, SCR's exquisite new iteration of this small, but genuinely endearing musical is by far the gold standard of how this show should look and feel in any and all future productions.

Known for showcasing mostly impressive, thought-provoking plays, the Tony Award-winning regional theater's decision to open its 54th Season with a small but character-driven recent Broadway musical is an inspired choice. ONCE definitely feels like it belongs here. If you strip away all the music from this show, it's not unfathomable to imagine its remains as something you'd actually see dramatized on this very stage: a layered, hopeful, but ultimately bittersweet boy-meets-girl story.

So it is certainly not far-fetched to conclude that---aside from its winning cast and top-notch production values---much of the success of SCR's pleasing production of ONCE can be attributed to being produced inside a mid-size theater. As awesome as past road productions of this show may have been, showcasing ONCE in a huge 2000+ seat theater somewhat dilutes its shared emotional resonance, even from a front row seat or even (as is often in my case personally) a press seat in the tenth row. Often in these larger venues, the subtle, quiet storm of ONCE becomes minimized further by an invisible barrier that places a significant distance between the self-contained action happening on stage from the feelings being stirred in the audience.

The audience is reduced to being your average passive theatergoer, fully aware that we are just watching a story rather than feeling intimately connected to it.

However, here inside the more "intimate" 507-seat Segerstrom Stage at SCR---where audience members are closer together under a smaller room and are just a stone's throw away from the action---ONCE spreads the camaraderie on stage and becomes all the more a communal, close knit experience shared wholeheartedly between the actors/their characters and the rapt audience. Like flies on the wall observing it all, we as an audience all feel like we are collectively just as immersed in the story and its environments as are the actors/musicians on stage. There's such an aura of togetherness within the walls that I'm surprised an actor isn't planted in the audience to just get up mid-show onto the stage and just start banging a tambourine.

Like prior Broadway and touring productions, SCR's ONCE also retains the gimmick-y audience-baiting pre-show "improv" jam session that happens as audience members start to file into the theater to find their assigned seats prior to the start of the show. And just like those earlier productions, SCR also invites audience members to come up right on stage before each show to crowd around the jamming musicians... and, yes, even order drinks from the bar prominently featured in the show's own pub set, designed with keen Irish authenticity by Ralph Funicello.

But unlike in those larger theaters, when the lucky audience members drinking and clapping on stage are shoo-ed back to their seats as the musical's story begins to unfold, they don't just retreat back to their theater seat---metaphorically, they sit back down as if they grabbed a pub chair so that they can sit somewhere still inside that Irish pub.

No matter where you are seated, the musical's absorbing story, the likable songs, the intriguing characters and both their overt and subdued actions/reactions are all palpable and fiercely felt. This impressive production of ONCE makes it easy for every person present to connect with and to feel every emotion that every character goes through within the span of two acts.

Even minor periphery characters---who also make up the show's hard-working live orchestra, entering the action from their own chairs on either side of the pub---feel real and alive, moving in and out of the spotlight with a natural, organic quality, and armed with a real emotional stake in everything that transpires. And having a much closer proximity to the music (and music-making) electrifies the overall theatrical experience even more, even if these tunes don't belong in your preferred genre. Without the aid of visual trickery or eye-popping special effects, the subtle, more intimate ONCE, instead, grabs you by the heart.

Just like the film that inspired it, ONCE - THE MUSICAL follows the same core narrative, but expands it to include more interactions with a purposeful ensemble. When the musical (officially) begins, we meet a brooding busker/aspiring singer-songwriter, simply identified as "Guy" (hipster-handsome Rustin Cole Sailors) passionately performing an original, possibly autobiographical song in the local pub. As it so happens, in the audience is "Girl" (the enchanting Amanda Leigh Jerry) who is thoroughly enraptured by his song and, maybe, also finds Guy kinda... interesting.

Intrusive and nosey but in an adorable way, the refreshingly forward and outspoken Girl---who speaks with a heavy Czech accent---interrogates Guy about his music, which prompts him to reveal that many of his original songs were actually inspired by his now ex-girlfriend who moved to New York. The ordeal has left him so distraught that he has decided to give up performing music right then and there and just retreat to his day job as a vacuum cleaner repairman.

In a fortuitous stroke of luck, Girl just happens to have a broken, non-"sucking" Hoover in dire need of repair (which she instantly retrieves from just off stage). A budding musician herself, she declares that she will play the piano for him as payment for the vacuum repair. The pair whisks off to a music shop owned by Girl's platonic pal Billy (scene-stealing Nicholas Mongiardo-Cooper). Billy has a crush on her so he allows her to play piano at the shop occasionally since she dreams of one day owning one but can't afford to buy it at the moment.

Soon Girl snoops inside Guy's bag to find sheet music to another original song. Despite his stubborn reluctance to perform it for her, Guy eventually gives in as Girl strikes the first chords of the song on the piano. With guitar back in hand, Guy begins singing the gorgeous, ultra romantic "Falling Slowly" (the Oscar-winning song from the film) which Girl immediately joins him in duet.

Inexplicably, tears start dripping from my eyes as I watch and listen to the pair emote through the song with such heartbreaking melancholy and longing.

And just like the audience, Girl thinks the song is amazeballs. She suggests that he perhaps should let her ex-girlfriend hear the song in order to win her back. Um, yeah, nice deflection there, Girl. It's clear the two are (please forgive me) "Falling Slowly" for each other.

Complying with their "deal," Guy agrees to repair her vacuum back at their family-owned shop where she meets his father (Scott Waara, in a bear-hug worthy performance). Not surprisingly, Guy's father and the Girl both instantly like each other. Soon Guy invites Girl upstairs to his bedroom above the shop to listen to some self-made tapes of his songs.

Naturally, Guy awkwardly miscalculates the moment and kisses her. She rebuffs him and leaves swiftly. But all is forgiven the next day.

And thus begins the pair's musical collaboration: she offers to write lyrics to his wordless melodies, which they then rehearse to eventually record. But, perhaps, the collaboration is just an excuse for both to spend more time with each other?

Nonetheless, the two press on: two highly creative people whose personal lives are at an impasse, only to find within each other a seemingly drama-free outlet for music-making to put some spark back into their lives.

Is it still hella romantic? Um, yeah.

As they spend more and more time with each other, they do their best to squelch the burgeoning mutual attraction that's slowly bubbling beneath the surface. Perhaps as a feeble attempt at deflection, Girl claims Guy may still be in love with his ex, considering that she inspired such passionate, ultra-romantic music from him. She, on the other hand, is revealed to be a married woman with a young child, Ivanka (Jacqueline Vellandi, who alternates the role with Aoife McEvoy), a situation that certainly puts a kibosh (maybe) on their would-be romance since she feels it is in her daughter's best interest for her to try to work things out with her estranged husband.

Thankfully, there's a far more pressing mission at hand: Guy, with his love of music reignited thanks to Girl's encouragement, agrees to record all of these songs in a studio so he can put together a demo album and take it to New York! Sounds easy enough... but will their possible romance get in the way of achieving this?

Theatrically understated yet quite emotionally powerful, SCR's ONCE is a beautifully-staged iteration of what is already a lovely, entertaining, and absorbing musical, made even better with an amplified sense of hopefulness, human kindness, and a can-do spirit that did not feel as overt in past productions I have seen. Perhaps it is just a mere happy accident that this production seems to have a better spatial awareness of what intimate theater can do for its audience.

Here, my level of enjoyment for the material peaked---a pleasant surprise that I didn't anticipate when I walked back into this Dublin bar I first visited several years ago in a much bigger theater. Here the entire show has a deeper emotional stake, propped up by the show's incredible technical aspects and, of course, the outstanding performances by its unified ensemble.

Costume Designer Leah Piehl provides a creative palette for each character's personality to be imbedded in their respective outfits, while designer Lap Chi Chu's excellent lighting provides appropriate thematic moods as well as ways to conceive believable separate "rooms" within the show's static set. Kelly Todd's hypnotizing choreography wonderfully reiterates the idea of a community coming together whenever the ensemble moves as one.

As for the cast, leads Jerry and Sailors have undeniable chemistry, particularly as the two exchange longing, swoon-worthy glances from across the room as they sing love ballads to each other. The pairing feels so natural that the audience can't help but root for these two kids to work it out. Jerry, for her part, winningly evokes a woman with a pure heart, as if always on the lookout for the best in people and for individuals in need of a little human kindness. Sailors---hard-edged on the outside yet unapologetically in touch with his feelings---is believably brooding and cynical most times, but still allows for some noticeable joy and even some tender vulnerability to peek through whenever he looks over at the Girl.

The two leads are blessed to be supported by a multi-talented cast that not only acted out individual characters when called for, but also step up as the show's live musical accompaniment---a bit of theatrical magic that makes such a show all the more exciting to experience. They are all individually terrific, but together, they are particularly superb. This ensemble's version of the a cappella reprise of "Gold" is the best I've ever heard it, hands down.

While the star-crossed/creatively-stirred romance is still at the heart of ONCE, one aspect that now becomes much more amplified in such a communally intimate space is the role of the community in, well... raising a hopeful voice. Not only is Girl so enthusiastically revved up to help Guy achieve a creative triumph---setting aside romantic feelings so her new friend could realize his talents and potential---but so is everyone else in Guy's sphere. Everyone from the Bank Manager (Andy Taylor, who's also the production's musical director) who approves his loan, to the Girl's own fellow Czech bros Andrej (Alex Nee) and Sec (Zach Spound) willingly offer to help out Guy's quest. Heck, eventually even Billy is persuaded to join the cause.

To be fair, this sense of village-togetherness was certainly there in previous productions I have seen, yet somehow here feels even more pronounced in SCR's production, helping the show feel like an even more enjoyable version overall. Is it just the nature of having an intimate musical taking place in a smaller venue? Maybe. But, nonetheless, witnessing this collective endeavor take shape as a selfless act that benefits one individual in achieving his dreams feels like such an antithesis to the troubling times we live in today.

That---for me and perhaps for the many who have already experienced the show at SCR---is at the heart of this new production: this palpable sense of communal enjoyment. Though we as an audience are passively just reacting to the action from our seats, it feels as though we---performers and spectators alike---can still agree to join together in a shared appreciation for one's artistic fulfillment and to, thereby, root for Guy's success both professionally and in his romantic life. What a novel idea to practice in our own lives: selflessness!

But beyond this idea, ONCE---especially in this iteration---burrows deep to unearth all the raw feels. I'm not embarrassed to admit that a few slow trickles of tears flowed here and there unexpectedly. There are moments where I couldn't remove the smile from my face. Other moments had me sighing in heartbreak for the protagonists' disappointments. And by the time the show reaches its climax, during the full company reprise of "Falling Slowly," I couldn't help but let it all go. I can almost guarantee that you and everyone around you while watching that ending will have joined together in a community-sponsored big ugly cry, too.

If you have yet to see this comforting embrace of a musical, filled with achingly romantic music, likable characters, and a pleasing fresh take on a love story, then go see South Coast Repertory's exquisite production now. With all the craziness happening in the world, it's nice to know that somewhere in the world, music can still be a healing, shareable, collectively adored entity.

* Follow this reviewer on Twitter: @cre8iveMLQ *

Photos by Jordan Kubat for South Coast Repertory. Review also published in On Stage.

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ONCE - THE MUSICAL continues at South Coast Repertory through September 30, 2017. Tickets can be purchased online at www.scr.org, by phone at (714) 708-5555 or by visiting the box office at 655 Town Center Drive in Costa Mesa.


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