REVIEW: “ONCE” — LAGUNA PLAYHOUSE
MARCH 13, 2023 — LAGUNA BEACH
When the violins begin to play — and the accordion and the mandolin and the guitars and the cello — and the instruments swell into a collection of distinctive Hiberno-English, Germanic and Bohemian voices melded into a single, universal feeling, you suddenly have an all-consuming pang in the corners of your heart screaming to you that you may have missed out on this not-so-new yet undiscovered culture before now. “Once” massages that feeling until it hurts quite exquisitely.
“For an island this tiny to make all these writers and poets and musicians! This is insane,” says the unnamed female protagonist of ‘Once.’ “And yet on this little rock in the middle of the ocean you make men and women who for centuries can speak and sing of what it is to be a person.” That awed appreciation of Ireland’s fertile cultural output — and the skill of its artists at transmuting real human experience into soaring poetry — seems not the least bit hyperbolic in the context of this sustained swoon of a musical, nurtured out of John Carney’s 2007 microbudget indie feature.
But then, the best thing to happen to Broadway in the past couple of decades has been the increasingly adventurous and idiosyncratic musicals hatched on those fabled streets. I’m talking about those quirky, thoroughly entertaining musicals like “Avenue Q,” “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” “Grey Gardens,” “Passing Strange,” “Fela!” and “Spring Awakening,” to name a select few. Not all have found commercial success to match their critical support, but every time producers take that risk in transferring unconventional material, it expands the entire scope — as well as the audience — of musical theater. “Once” is a beguiling addition to that list.
Adapted with humor and resourcefulness by Irish playwright Enda Walsh, geniously directed by Steve Steiner, musically directed by the incredible Julia Hoffman, and staged and choreographed by a very smart Paula Hammons Sloan, the story is a gossamer sliver of thwarted romance which opened Sunday night at Laguna Playhouse and will be playing through March 26th to yet more thunderstruck crowds, I'm sure. Sunday’s show had everyone on their feet cheering.
The narrative? A despondent Dublin busker and songwriter identified only as Guy (Keaton Eckhoff) and a Czech immigrant billed as Girl (Grace Belt) meet cute by way of a broken vacuum cleaner and a piano, and discover they share a knack for creating folk-rock tunes that ripple with melancholy and rue. Both are hindered by unfinished relationships even as music draws them closer while they gather the elements to make a demo recording. That connection gives the show its lifeblood and scaled-up adorability. But as much as the complicated byroads of love and longing, “Once” is really about making music, communicating through song. And what jewels those songs are.
Written by Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová, the numbers include the Oscar-winning “Falling Slowly,” as well as such heartrending ballads as “Leave,” “If You Want Me,” “Say It to Me Now,” “Gold” and “When You’re Mind’s Made Up,” all of which will be familiar to the duo’s fans. Hansard and Irglova recorded as “The Swell Season,” which also was the title of a documentary chronicling their professional and personal relationship.
The haunting beauty of the songs in performance is due to an exceptional cast of actor-musicians, and to the marriage of elegant naturalness and striking physicality in Director Steiner and Choreographer Paula Hammons Sloan’s staging and Matthew Herman’s effectively simple, yet rustically beautiful sets. But a large share of the credit goes to musical orchestrator Martin Lowe, whose sublime melodies and vocal harmonies elevate the songs to an exalted emotional plane. Numbers frequently begin in quiet acoustic mode, gathering force as additional voices and instruments are folded in. And Sound Designer Ian Wehrle ensures that every element of the complex musical mosaics is crystal clear.
Starting with the rousing preshow jam session with an inviting pub set backdropped in (where the audience can buy drinks and mingle with the cast right on stage at intermission), the creative team reaches beyond the folk-rock core to incorporate traditional Irish and Central European tunes, Celtic country and even death metal in an amusing side note. A great many beautifully enhanced riffs on key songs also provide the backing for many of the balletic scene changes.
You’ve heard it all before, right? Except you haven’t. Not quite. Because “Once” uses song and dance in a way most people have never experienced in an American musical: to convey a beautiful shimmer of might-have-been regret. But what lends a special, tickling poignancy to Mr. Hansard and Ms. Irglová’s songs is their acceptance of loneliness as an existential given. These are not big ballads that complain angrily about how we could have had it all. No, they hit you with an air of romantic resignation, streaked in minor-key undercurrents, tempered with a core heartache of numbers possessing savory-sweet sadness that feels both organic and universal. As a result, Mr. Eckhoff manages to find a soulful, quietly erotic energy in his passive character, and his singing voice shifts by stealthy degrees from tuneful plaintiveness to howling pain.
Sometimes Director Steiner sends his performers into spirited European hoedowns, featuring amiably dueling violinists dancing on tables. More often they move with calculated tentativeness, in reaching gestures that summon infinite, thwarted longing. A duo number performed by Ms. Belt and Mr. Eckhoff in this vein, “If You Want Me” is a gentle knockout; so is the first-act a cappella curtain number, “Gold,” led by Mr. Eckhoff with a beautiful whole company harmony at the end.
It’s not easy playing a winsome life force with a foreign accent. But Ms. Belt has mastered the assignment brilliantly. She brings a new confidence to her portrayal, and an enhanced mixture of wit and wisdom, which suggests a maturity in youth, a fatalism hard won during an Eastern European childhood. And together she and Mr. Eckhoff exude a chemistry that is all the more achingly real for being so subdued.
And there’s such tenderness in the performances and such skill in the musicianship. All 12 adult cast members play one or more instruments while etching distinctive characters. In addition to Keaton Eckhoff and Grace Belt as the enchanting central couple, one can single out Grant Alexander Brown, Maryann DiPietro, Morgan Hollingsworth, Will Huse, Becca Last, Chris McGraw, James Michael McHale, Michael Naishtut, Caitlin Ort and Lauren Witman, all of whom have nestled deeper into their roles. But one significant notable was Julia Hoffmann, who also serves as the Music Director. Not only is she a mesmerizing violinist, she brings a sexy spark and an invigorating shot of danger as Reza, another Czech transplant.
Although perhaps small-scale without lavish extravagence, “Once" is a warmly affecting show, well-crafted and well-executed with exquisite talent in abundance. One of the best shows I have seen in months. And for anyone who feels that musical theater lately is slowly becoming the domain of bloated spectacles and cynically overworked brands, I can guarantee this will definitely be a refreshing artisanal tonic.
LAGUNA PLAYHOUSE, CELEBRATING 100 YEARS, PRESENTS THE FOURTH SHOW OF ITS SEASON, THE ACADEMY, OLIVIER, GRAMMY & TONY-AWARD WINNING MUSICAL, ONCE; Based on the Motion Picture, Written & Directed by JOHN CARNEY; Book by EDNA WALSH; Music & Lyrics by GLEN HANSARD & MARKETA IRGLOVA; Directed by STEVE STEINER; Musical Direction by JULIA HOFFMANN; Choreography & Musical Staging by PAULA HAMMONS SLOAN; Orchestrations by MARTIN LOWE; Scenic Design by MATTHEW HERMAN; Lighting Design by WILLIAM GIBBONS-BROWN; Sound Design by IAN WEHRLE; Costume Design by P & G COSTUMES CO.; Production Stage Manager KYLE M. DILL.
WITH: GRACE BELT • GRANT ALEXANDER BROWN • MARYANN DIPIETRO • KEATON ECKHOFF • JULIA HOFFMAN • MORGAN HOLLINGSWORTH • WILL HUSE • BECCA LAST • CHRIS MCGRAW • JAMES MICHAEL MCHALE • MICHAEL NAISHTUT • CAITLIN ORT • LAUREN WITMAN •
“ONCE” runs March 12th through March 26th with performances at Laguna Playhouse in Laguna Beach, 606 Laguna Canyon Drive. Performances are Wednesdays through Fridays at 7:30PM; Saturdays at 2PM & 7:30PM; Sundays at 1PM & 5:30PM. Running Time Approximately 2 Hours, 15 Minutes with one intermission. Tickets may be purchased by calling 949-497-2787, ext. 229, or online at www.lagunaplayhouse.com
Arts & Entertainment Reviewer
The Show Report
PHOTO CREDITS: Jason Niedle