Musical theater romances are conceived in many shapes and sizes, but perhaps none more beautifully intimate than “Once,” the winner of eight 2012 Tony Awards including Best Musical currently receiving an outstanding local premiere at the Schuster Center courtesy of the Victoria Theatre Association’s Premier Health Broadway Series.
Set in Dublin and based on the 2007 Academy Award-winning independent film of the same name, “Once” chronicles the unlikely meeting between a struggling Irish street musician/vacuum repairman (identified as Guy) and an inquisitive young Czech woman (identified as Girl) who reawakens his gifted artistry through her persistent encouragement. These fascinating kindred spirits, brought together by fate, eventually embark on a simple yet complicated journey of self-discovery rooted in the promise of music as the driving force to overcome life’s tribulations. “No one who writes this song is finished,” exclaims Girl after her first meaningful duet with Guy.
Although the breezy, witty and touching libretto by Enda Walsh doesn’t fully broaden the lives of this intriguing duo (Guy’s relocated ex-girlfriend and Girl’s daughter and estranged husband could have been more significant dramatic factors in the storytelling), the action nonetheless evolves with a gently compelling ease. The terrific, angst-flavored folk-rock score by Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová, who starred in the film, certainly contributes to the material’s deep emotional resonance. The gorgeous ballad “Falling Slowly,” winner of the Academy Award for Best Original Song, remains a signature tune, but plaintive, introspective and descriptive songs such as “Leave,” “If You Want Me,” “Say It to Me Now,” and “Gold” are equally impactful. In the same regard, the exuberant essence of “North Strand” and “When Your Mind’s Made Up” adheres to sprightly Irish sensibilities.
Director John Tiffany’s remarkable ensemble of 13 actor-musicians, authentically on par with the original Broadway cast and terrifically interpreting choreographer Steven Hoggett’s character-conscious movement, is marvelously led by the tender and vocally strong performances of Sam Cieri and Mackenzie Lesser-Roy. The handsome Cieri, a dynamic indie-folk singer deserving of a major record deal, skillfully portrays Guy with a wounded, vulnerable fragility that astutely dissipates whenever music frees him from his introverted shell. The endearingly lovely Lesser-Roy, sharp, humorous and beguiling, maintains a pensive aura of attractive mystery throughout that gives credence to Girl’s innate charm as an unexpected muse. Marlene Ginader (Réza), John Hays (Billy), Nyssa Duchow (Ex-Girlfriend), Jenn Chandler (Bank Manager), Patricia Bartlett (Baruṧka), Isaac Haas (Andrej), and Bristol Pomeroy (Da) are among the featured standouts. Additionally, the cast merrily launches this top-notch presentation, expertly enhanced by scenic designer Bob Crowley’s unit bar set and Natasha Katz’s evocative lighting, long before the lights dim. In fact, the audience is encouraged to go on stage 30 minutes before curtain time for a better view (and grab a drink) during the lively pre-show atmospherics reflecting the easygoing jubilance and tuneful frivolity of a Dublin pub.
“Once” is so captivating you’ll wish you could purchase a cast recording of this touring company at intermission. At its core, it truly thrives as a genuinely earnest ode to the bonds of friendship, the therapeutic power of music, and the alluring complexities of love.
“Once” continues through Jan. 24 at the Schuster Center, Second and Main Streets, Dayton. Performances are Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 2 and 8 p.m., and Sunday at 2 and 7:30 p.m. Act One: 60 minutes; Act Two: 40 minutes. Tickets are $25-$82. For tickets or more information, call Ticket Center Stage at (937) 228-3630 or visit www.ticketcenterstage.com.