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Review: Eight O'Clock Theatre Presents ONCE, a Musical So Good That You May Have to See It Twice

A Stunning Production

Review: Eight O'Clock Theatre Presents ONCE, a Musical So Good That You May Have to See It Twice Review: Eight O'Clock Theatre Presents ONCE, a Musical So Good That You May Have to See It Twice Review: Eight O'Clock Theatre Presents ONCE, a Musical So Good That You May Have to See It Twice

"You've turned love around for me and you've done it in five days. And yeah I wrote these songs at another time for another girl but when I sing it's for us, I think, it's you I see in the songs..." --Guy (the lead male character) in ONCE

"You cannot walk through your life leaving unfinished love behind you!" --Girl (the female lead) in ONCE

"Love's all very well but in the hands of people it turns into soup." --The Bank Manager in ONCE

After watching Eight O'Clock Theatre's production of ONCE, I think it's unfair to label this organization as a mere "community theatre." They are so much more than that. Usually when we think of "community theatre," we think of unprofessional, shoddy, vapidly enthusiastic, let's-put-on-a-show-in-the-barn, pitchy, wooden productions. I've seen some community theatre shows that would make your skin crawl; the nighttime memories of them sometimes wake me in sweated panic as if I'm being chased by Freddie Krueger in my nightmares. Their heart may have been in the right place, but nothing else was. EOT is different. They have proven that they are the finest community theatre in the area, with shows that are always technically proficient with casts that (more times than not) live up to the technical wonders.

And their latest production--the local premiere of ONCE--adds another jewel in their crown. It's technically audacious, awe-inspiring, as most EOT shows are, but this also boasts great performances and music filled with more heart than anything outside of the Pepin Heart Institute.

Based on the 2007 film, with music and lyrics by Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova, ONCE is a romance, a drama, a musical journey, a philosophical treatise on love, a comedy, a tragedy, a celebration of life and the key moments of existence discovered and ultimately lost and then ultimately found.

An Irish musician, known only as Guy, meets a Czech woman, simply known as Girl...and both of their lives change in a matter of days. They are in love but are attached to others. ONCE explores their underlying love, how music saves them (and, vicariously, us). Their courtship, or near-courtship, is one of the loveliest ever captured in musical theatre history.

"I want to rewrite the ending," I overheard an audience member say after the show. But I heartily disagree with that assessment. The beauty of ONCE's story is in its ending (there's a reason it's called ONCE); life doesn't offer easy solutions. There is a difference between "happy" and "satisfying." Imagine Chinatown where everyone lives happily ever after; it would be so wrong and surely forgotten to this day instead of remaining a noir classic and one of the 1970's greatest films. I'm sure some people of the 1940's even wanted to change the final few minutes of Casablanca, perhaps the greatest final few minutes of any film ever. The ending of ONCE, without giving anything away, is not only right, it's beautiful. I get teary-eyed at its finale every time.

The performances are top-notched, from the amazing leads to the quirkiest of supporting characters.

As Guy, Andrew Roehm is a revelation. He has a sort of grungy charisma, ruffled, a sad, embittered sack who is brought back to life by music and a girl. There is a moment where he stands on the desk of a bank manager, playing his guitar and singing, and the table starts rotating, moving in circles around the stage, and it was pure ecstasy. Stunning work.

Elizabeth Anderson is a godsend as Girl, "the ambassador of honesty." She has a voice from the heavens, so much gusto and enthusiasm, but not annoying or cloying. Out of a strong cast, she's perhaps the strongest in it. We root for her, and we root for the couple to get together.

Roehm and Anderson have great chemistry. There's a moment in Act 2 where their characters, Guy and Girl, watch the ocean, a giant ring circling them, and it's like their floating on their own, levitating in the cosmos. And then there's a simple scene of Anderson singing "The Hill" and slowly behind her the universe appears, stars littering the background, seemingly billions and billions of twinkling lights, their reflections floating at her feet. You feel we're watching a rotating stage without an actual rotating stage. Glorious.

Roehm and Anderson also sing one of the great love songs of our time: "Falling Slowly." In their hands, it left me breathless. Haunting, lovely, so beautiful it will make you cry. Yes, it sounds a bit too familiar to Smokey Robinson and The Miracles' "You Really Got a Hold on Me," with similar lyrics (instead of Smokey's "I don't like you, but I love you," you have ONCE's "I don't know you, but I want you"). But in the end, who cares? Brian Wilson of The Beach Boys once claimed that "music is the voice of God." That's what I thought when I heard "Falling Slowly" in this production. This isn't just a Guy-Meets-Girl love story; this is something else, something bigger, something more divine. Music and love are both the Voices of God. Is it my imagination, or is "Falling Slowly" the finest love song written this century?

Each of the supporting players bring their A-games. Drew Eberhard is a fistful of fun as Billy. Ashlie Timberlake, theatre teacher at Palm Harbor University High School, is stunning as Baruska, and gets one of the show's best moments with an unforgettable monologue; she knows how to strongly take the stage without stealing focus from the others. John Timberlake also gets his show-stopping moment with a rollicking "Abandoned in Bandon." The great Brian Yarbrough in the relatively small role as Da once again showcases why he's one of the area's finest performers. And Mercer Tucker is adorable as Girl's son, Ivan.

The rest of the cast is equally as solid: Lisa Prieto, Jacob Rosado, Grant Sparr (marvelous energy), Laura Stack and KJ Kosobucki. Most of the actors act as the musical's orchestra, each one energetically playing a different musical instrument. They are onstage for the majority of the show, and a party atmosphere permeates.

Special mention must be paid to David Russell as the Czech, Svec. Imagine Animal, the Muppet drummer, sprung to life in human form and you have Svec. I remember watching Russell's rousing King Herod in EOT's Jesus Christ Superstar; he stole the show there, and he steals it here. He's a force of nature, and his character is somewhere between a caveman and an alien. So unpredictable, so much fun to watch. As a drummer, he tries to out-Moon the Who's Keith Moon. A single word emitting from his lips--in this case, "hard"--had the audience in stitches. This is a comic creation in and of itself, and it's not to be missed.

The music of ONCE is heavenly. Aside from the aforementioned "Falling Slowly", you have one of my favorite numbers, "The Moon (Reprise 2)." Sung a cappella by the talented cast, it is beautifully rendered, so intimate, so moving, you dare not breathe during it.

There are some nit-picks. Irish is a tough accent to tackle, and some performers' accents are certainly stronger, more authentic, than others. But every actor at least gives his or her ol' college try at it.

Before the show, musicians sing John Denver in the lobby while, inside the theater, a trio rips through an acoustic stab at "Hey Ya!" I do miss the Broadway idea of having audience members habitat at the onstage bar before the show and during intermission, but the licensing company strictly (and mysteriously) prohibits this. Still, the show's bacchanalia atmosphere is able to move beyond the proscenium.

And then there's Dalton Hamilton's set. I've always known Mr. Hamilton as a genius set designer, one of the finest in our area (or any area), but he has outdone himself here. Hovering above the stage throughout the show is giant ring, like a Goliath wedding band, a halo, or a mothership straight out of Close Encounters of the Third Kind. It changes colors throughout, depending on the mood of the scene. Behind the action are video projections, also designed by Mr. Hamilton, with some of them being recorded live. (I particularly like the psychedelic Woodstock nod with the multiple images of Guy on his guitar; it's like an acid trip in Dublin.) And Dalton's lighting design is the best I've seen in any show all year; it's so distinct, it's like it forms its own character. A heavenly presence, God overseeing these two characters without actual names.

Jason Tucker, who is both the director and musical director, deserves tremendous applause for pulling off this incredible feat of a production. Under his tutelage, his cast sounded great, and he has an uncanny eye for blocking, stage movement. It's one of the tightest technical productions I've seen locally, seamless, and my hat also goes off to stage manager James Grenelle for the whip-crack pace of this show, with an abundance of lighting, sound, and rail cues. Excellence all around.

ONCE is so special that seeing it once is not enough. You might need to see it twice, to experience a miraculous show that is surprisingly seldom produced. Just to pile on the superlatives, here's one more: This production ranks up there with EOT's stellar 1776 from several years ago as one of the finest community theatre productions I've seen.

EOT'S production of ONCE plays at the Central Park Performing Arts Center in Largo until August 15th.

Photo Credit: Jayne Drooger.

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