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BWW Review: Theater West End's ONCE Interrupts the Familiar with Blasts of Joy

This low-key musical puts a big cast on the Sanford stage again, complete with accordion and fiddle...

BWW Review: Theater West End's ONCE Interrupts the Familiar with Blasts of Joy

Twice, ONCE won awards I thought the competition deserved. In 2012, the Broadway musical knocked out Newsies for the Tonys' top prize. Another Alan Menken musical, Enchanted, lost an Oscar to ONCE thrice - its trio of nominees falling swiftly to "Falling Slowly" and my anger rising rapidly at home.

But now it's 2021 and ONCE: THE MUSICAL is at Theater West End in Sanford, where I can see for myself whether the American Theatre Wing owes Jeremy Jordan an apology.

First a movie and now a show, ONCE is a simple little romance about a guy named Guy and a girl named Girl. She's Czech and plays piano, he's Irish and does vacuum repair. They meet, soon swapping stories of long-lost love while singing, strumming, plucking, and... falling slowly.

Somewhere along the way, there's a fairly preposterous subplot about a bank loan, but the details don't bear any interest. ONCE is a familiar formulation of romance with very little story to tell. It's about chance encounters, Irish evenings, and broad platitudes concerning life and love. It's a reverie of acoustic guitar, a coffee shop on a rainy day.

But then there are sudden punches of energy. Supporting actors will occasionally storm the stage with instruments as unsurprising as the guitar and as wild as the accordion. They start stomping around and lurching into their instruments, singing so loudly you feel lifted inside by the zeal of it all. It's incredibly powerful... and then it's over, and we're back to the ho-hum of Girl meets Guy with guitar.

I spent much of ONCE wishing it were a different show, one where the lyrics more consistently connect with the characters' plights, where the observations are less pedestrian, and where there's more life than lull. If only those vivacious jolts of musicianship weren't so fleeting and disproportionate to the boring in-between. But romantics will disagree with me, as did a friend and fellow theatre critic who attended alongside me on Saturday night, fully enraptured by the beauty of ONCE.

That beauty is one thing we agreed on. Theater West End has again crafted a set you love to look at. The ensemble actors are part of the set dressing, perched in aisles, on staircases, and even in a rafter built over the wings. Wooden chairs hang from on high, craftily implying a bigger sense of scale to the set's gorgeously lit minimalism. A false floor is equipped with special lights that shine up from underneath on cue from the music.

ONCE is more rom-dram than -com, but my fellow patrons were clearly in good spirits. That's thanks to Valerie Torres-Rosario's sharp delivery of Girl's challenges to the conventional wisdom of those around her, particularly Guy, who is appropriately pitiable and affable in Andrew Romano's hands (...and hips, at least when he goes full Elvis in one scene, much to the crowd's delight). Jon Patrick Penick brings a knack for comic physicality and timing to his supporting role as blowhard Billy, purveyor of the local piano shop. Chris McGraw earns laughs with each line as overeager Svec. And young Milan Madison steals everyone's heart as little Ivanka. The child actress does a lot with a small part. A graduate of West End Prep, she seems to have an intuitive instinct for theatre and also a studious observance of the craft, portending her potential.

But it's the music that makes ONCE. This is the largest cast to appear unmasked (and fully vaccinated) at Theater West End since the pandemic began. Seeing them all making real live music together for a live audience was both strange and soul-fulfilling, a wonderful blast of "the old days" for which we're all overdue. There are strong singers in the bunch, among them: Mark Miller's very full belt as Da and Sean Powell's folksy tenor in the part of Andrej. Much of the singing duty falls to Romano, whose otherwise gifted voice is perhaps not a natural fit for the low-key balladry and high-reaching falsetto of this particular songbook. Torres-Rosario's is better suited to the demands, and quite good at that. One thing's certain: the two of them ensure you go home with "Falling Slowly" repeating constantly in your head.

With this production, Theater West End is offering audiences the indescribable joy of just being there when people come together to make music in a small room. Every member of cast and crew is fully vaccinated, while audience members are masked and socially distanced, ensured by tasteful cabaret-style seating, complete with a private table for each party. It's no Newsies, but ONCE is worth seeing at least that many times, especially when we've gone ages without anything like it on stage. Tickets are available at Theater West End's website, where sales support local theatre in a time of great need.

What did you think of ONCE: THE MUSICAL at Theater West End? Let me know on Twitter @AaronWallace.

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