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Review: ONCE at Saint Michael's Playhouse

Review: ONCE at Saint Michael's Playhouse
Photo Credit: Andy Duback

Music has the power to connect, to soften, to heal, to save and to transform--that is the message in the season-opener Once at Saint Michael's Playhouse. The Tony-award winning musical features a 12-person ensemble, nearly all of whom take up residence onstage during an informal, pre-show jam session and more or less remain onstage, instruments in hand, for the duration. The message is clear: music is for everyone, music is in us, music begins before the show and, with luck, continues on into our lives long after the curtain has come down.

Sure, there's also a love story but Guy and Girl don't even have names, while most characters in the ensemble do. This is no accident; the love story is a collateral element that serves the primary message about art and the generative power of the creative imagination to infuse meaning into a too-often cold and nihilistic world.

The musical, expertly adapted by Enda Walsh, explores the interplay between tragedy and comedy. The dialogue is often funny, especially the endearing, tongue-in-cheek humor of Girl, played by Elizabeth Nestlerode, who works to guide and goad Guy (Barry Debois) into waking up to the gift of his life and his music.

The ensemble, too, are a riotous, playful bunch. Adam Huel Potter, who plays Billy, very nearly steals the show in one of the opening Irish ballads, "The Auld Triangle" during the pre-show jam session and he continues to drive the energy forward with his comically plaintive portrayal of a music store owner down on his luck in love and money. Andrej (Cody Craven), Svec (Nick Lerangis), and Reza (Margaret Dudasik) are the Czech immigrants inhabiting the small flat along with Girl, her mother Baruska (Emily Mikesell) and daughter Irenka (Tessa Gordon). They add comic--and often poignant--subplots that give the story more depth and interest.

The two leads are compelling and their chemistry draws the audience in. Debois vocal virtuosity shines in the higher part of his range, where the songs in Once often have their emotional climax. In contrast, the lower notes prove to be more of a stretch for his voice; he is weaker and therefore less expressive in these moments. Nestlerode gives a clear and effective performance, blending with and buoying Debois' voice, in full control of dynamics and color throughout the musical.

Review: ONCE at Saint Michael's Playhouse
Photo Credit: Andy Duback

Tim Case's scene design complements and mirrors the ensemble's encircling embrace of the story, with a two-story Dublin streetscape. Anthony Pellecchia's lighting does much to enhance the shifting moods in the story--notably emphasizing sudden shifts and scene changes in concert with the musical score's delineation of the same. Choreography by Jennifer Hacker was also notable--amidst all of the movement of the ensemble, there were a few discrete moments of highly stylized gestural dances that elevated the action. The aesthetic effect was lovely and served to punctuate and visualize the show concepts.

Overall, director Chris Blisset delivers a tender, bittersweet, and ultimately triumphant production that opens Saint Michael's Playhouse's 71st season with aplomb. The ensemble is the shining star of this production, with the full-company a cappella rendition of "Gold" in Act II the show's culminating musical number. After all, this is the takeaway message and the truth at the heart of music making: we are better together.

Once at Saint Michael's Playhouse plays through June 30 at the McCarthy Arts Center, One Winooski Park, Colchester, VT 05439 $36-45 802-654-2281.

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