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The initial impression you get while watching Broadway Series South's current production of Once is that of a hootenanny. The stage is filled with musicians, all playing together and all having a whale of a good time. And we are caught up in it, and borne up by it, and find that we are more than willing to go.
Once was originally a film, written and directed by John Carney. This stage version, with book by Enda Walsh and music by Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova, is directed by John Tiffany. Once tells us the tale of Guy (Stuart Ward), a Dubliner who is heartsick. His girlfriend is across the sea in New York, has been for six months. Guy is a musician, and, we find, a very fine one at that. He plays his guitar with wild abandon, and when he sings his voice is loaded with love, loss, and pain. But the separation is so painful to him that he is ready to give up his music; at the end of the song he has written, "Leave," he puts down his guitar and starts to leave when he is stopped by a soft and gentle, "Hello," from a Girl (Dani de Waal), who is so taken by his music that she must meet him.
Once is set, primarily, in a music store in Dublin, run by Billy (Evan Harrington), who had designs on this girl himself, but was gently rebuked. He has since become a sort of older brother to her, and warns Guy off. But our Girl has other plans; she finds in Guy a kindred spirit, and has a plan to get him noticed, musically, and off to New York, where he can become famous and join his girlfriend. Guy is skeptical, to be sure, but Girl is so insistent that he is enthralled. The rest of the story is the actual preparation, the recording of a demo, and getting Guy on a plane. There are difficulties, though. For one, both Guy and Girl are poor, and money must be had if a demo is to be made. Girl seeks the money from a skeptical banker (John-Alex MacFarlane), but loans are not given based on dreams. However Guy's playing convinces the banker, and studio time is set.
If this play sounds a bit thin, understood. But this musical is, first and foremost, about the music. All of it is wooden music (guitars, mandolins, banjo, violins, cello, a multitude of drums, even an accordion) and all of the musicians are characters in the play, allowing us to not only hear the music but also see it. The entire cast remains onstage at all times, adding their instruments to the songs, singing and dancing, and making a joyful noise. Every undeniably infectious song draws us deeper into the story and the music itself. It is the magic of this music that makes Once work.
Girl is a classically trained pianist herself; she learned piano from her father, who was a violinist in the symphony where she grew up in Czechoslovakia. The duets that these two give us were inspired, and when the two sang together ("Falling Slowly," "If You Want Me"), we were entranced. But the rest of the cast was as able as the leads, and all of this music was bewitching. From the divine instrumentation to the intoxicating a cappella choral arrangements ("Gold"), every note of this music has been designed to spellbind us.
The full cast numbers nineteen, but there is one character who does not play an instrument: Girl's daughter, Ivanka, the smallest of children. Played by Sophie Knapp, Ivanka is precious and an added ingredient in this enchanting brew of a story.
Once is a musical that is captivating. I cannot sing its praises enough. There are sixteen songs in the libretto and every one is a jewel. This is a performance that is not to be missed. Immediately upon the closing note of the show, the audience was on its feet, cheering and applauding so loudly that, even though the play was thinly attended, the house sounded full to bursting. Once runs two-and-a-half hours, but we didn't care — we would have loved it to go on all night. There is only one thing I can tell you: go see this show. It is perhaps the best Christmas gift you can give this year, especially if you give it to yourself.
Once continues at Duke Energy Center's Memorial Auditorium through Sunday, December 6 as part of the production's national tour. For more details, please view the sidebar.