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REVIEW: “ONCE” — The Electric Company Theatre @ Muckenthaler Cultural Center

Updated: Nov 9, 2023

The soft-spoken, deeply felt musical about the forces of human connection that compel us to reach out to one another and hold on for dear life.


“Once” — first immortalized in the 2007 film by the same name, which was written by Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová, who performed together as the Swell Season — the musical debuted on Broadway in 2011, and won eight Tony awards (including Best Musical). The Electric Company Theatre's production at Muckenthaler Cultural Center now offers this little jewel, from among musical theatre’s more rambunctious cousins, with the gift of intimacy. It’s what this hushed, heartwarming chamber musical needs: it works best if we get close.


In many ways “Once,” which is directed here by an intuitive Brian Johnson, with music and lyrics also by Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová, and book written by terrific playwright Enda Walsh, has a much more profound scaled-up adorability factor than from the movie, with many lines like, “You cannot walk through your life leaving unfinished love behind you.”


Wesley Chavez and Mercy Thornton play characters named Guy and Girl, parts created on screen by Mr. Hansard and Ms. Irglová, who also uses the same songs. Guy, who is Irish, and Girl, who is Czech, meet in Dublin and discover they share a knack for creating folk-rock tunes that ripple with melancholy and rue.



Guy’s a brooding quitter; Girl’s a never-say-die doer. And together — with the help of their slightly offbeat friends — they just might make it after all. Professionally I mean. Romantically they’re both otherwise engaged. Or are they?


I’m sure you’ve heard this all before in other musicals, right? Except you haven’t, not quite. Because “Once” uses song and dance in a way never experienced in another American musical to convey a beautiful shimmer of “might-have-been” regret. 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, you and I. An air of romantic resignation, streaked in minor-key undercurrents, tempers the core heartache of numbers like “Leave,” “When Your Mind’s Made Up” and “Sleeping.”



And because most every member of the ensemble here is a musician, fully competent as both the show’s band and its cast of characters, this savory-sweet sadness feels both organic and universal. The open-aired single bar set, the subdued spotlighting with hand-carried lamps by homespun characters, the combination of melodious stringed instruments with natural background sounds and conversation – all give multifarious life to the kind of pub where people of all types, shy people, people who are boisterous, or people with outsize eccentricity, come to lose themselves in delightful moments of camaraderie, song and strong drink.


“Once” features another rarity in a musical: amplification that enhances rather than distorts the music. When the violins begin to play — and the accordion and the mandolin and the guitars and the cello — the instruments swell into a collection of distinctive voices melded into a single, universal feeling. That’s the sense, carried in the corners of all human hearts, that we just missed out on the real thing. “Once” massages that feeling until it hurts quite exquisitely.



Sometimes Director Johnson sends his performers into spirited hoedowns, featuring amiably dueling violinists and artistic dancing. More often they move with calculated tentativeness, in reaching gestures that summon infinite, thwarted longing. A number performed by Girl in this vein, “If You Want Me” is a gentle knockout; so is the first-act number just after that (“Say it to me Now”), led by Mr. Chavez, who manages to find a soulful, quietly erotic energy in his passive character, shifting his singing voice by stealthy degrees from tuneful plaintiveness to howling pain.


It’s not easy playing an endearing life force with a foreign accent. But Ms. Thornton has mastered the assignment brilliantly. She brings a new confidence to her part’s persona, and an enhanced mixture of wit and wisdom, which suggests a maturity in youth, and a fatalism hard won during an Eastern European childhood. Together, she and Mr. Chavez exude a chemistry that is all the more achingly real for being so subdued.



We meet the aspiring musician/vacuum cleaner repairman six months after his girlfriend has moved to New York and one year after the death of his mom — just as he decides to give up music. However, his stooped shoulders and the haunted expression of a man about to surrender suggests that music isn't the only thing he's contemplating giving up.


An impromptu duet between Guy and Girl, moments after their first meeting, “Falling Slowly,” begins tentatively, then intensifies as they gain each other's trust. "Gold" (composed and made famous by Irish singer/songwriter Fergus O'Farrell), the aforementioned first act finale performed by Guy as a kind of entreaty, is poignantly reprised in the second act as an A cappella benediction by the whole company, which takes one's breath away.



Book writer Enda Walsh, an inventive and often irreverent Irish playwright, surfaced the deeper underlying themes in “Once,” and pinpointed Guy and Girl as being “stopped,” unable to move on with their lives. He recognized that those lovely songs — performed with intensity and passion — contain within them the cure itself, the ability to go for it, to heal your heart, to dive into life with intensity and passion, risking failure and agony.


Eric Dobson scores big laughs as Billy, the frugal and persnickety music shop owner with a back problem and knack for karate, and Andrew Border’s Andrej, Girl’s impassioned sibling who learns English from cheesy soap operas. In addition, Rob Bethancourt is graced with a few touching moments playing Guy’s father, Da; Sophie Keaney offers the sexy manipulator Reza; Ryan Song portrays the quirky Bank Manager (who just wants to perform); and Jared Piper as a charismatic Svec.


Granted, this is a tough show with a vigorous demand for deft musicality and quick adaptability, yet all the performers landed their mark (either Czech or rocking the Irish brogue) with commendable passion and polished breaks, leads and solos.


While "Once" addresses grief, depression and perseverance, it is essentially a love story, or very nearly a love story. But I think it's best described as a story about love: Love that is lost, estranged, elusive, tentative. It's about the love friends and family (both biological and chosen) have for each other. And it is about a shared love of music that soothes the soul, uplifts the spirit, softens the heart and leaves everyone a little kinder for the hearing.

PRESENTING “ONCE,” By THE ELECTRIC COMPANY THEATRE, Now Playing at MUCKENTHALER CULTURAL CENTER, FULLERTON, Mondays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays at 7PM. Based on the 2007 Film by JOHN CARNEY. Music and Lyrics by GLEN HANSARD AND MARKETA IRGLOVIA. Book by ENDA WALSH.


FEATURING: WESLEY CHAVEZ (ECT: “The Old Man and The Old Moon,” “Shakespeare in Love”) as “Guy” and MERCY THORNTON (a world champion Latin dancer, elementary voice teacher and musical theatre extraordinaire) as “Girl.”


ENSEMBLE/ORCHESTRA: ANDREW BORDER (“The Old Man and the Old Moon,” “Romeo and Juliet”) as Andrej; ERIC DOBSON (“American Idiot,” “Rock of Ages”) as Billy; JARED PIPER (“Oklahoma,” “American Idiot”) as Svec; Co-Founder and Co-Artistic Director of ECT, CALLIE PRENDIVILLE JOHNSON (Director: “The Old Man and the Old Moon;” Director and Playwright: “The Leo Fender Project”) as Baruska; SHAUNA MCFADDEN, making her onstage debut as Emcee; retired Episcopal pastor ROB BETHANCOURT (Barking Dog Productions: “Let the Children Come,” “He is the Light”) as Da; RYAN SONG (Weezer and Steve Miller Band) as Bank Manager; SOPHIE KEANEY in her ECT debut as Reza; REBECCA MCBRIDE (HBO Max: “The Hype”) as Ex-Girlfriend; JAMES HERRERA (“The Sound of Music”) as Eamon; WYATT LOGAN (“The Old Man and The Old Moon,” “Alice: An Immersive Adventure”) as ensemble and dialect coach; and EMILY TAYLOR (“The Sound of Music,” “West Side Story”) as Ensemble and Choreographer. “Once” will run November 6-22, 2023. Running time: 2 hours and 20 minutes with one intermission. Tickets are on sale now at electriccompanytheatre.org




Chris Daniels

Arts & Entertainment Reviewer

The Show Report









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