Theatre Raleigh's newest presentation is Once, a 2011 musical that took the nation by storm. Originally a movie, written and directed by John Carney, it was then developed for the stage by the American Repertory Theatre of Cambridge, and later moved Off-Broadway to the New York Theatre Workshop. In the usual Irish tradition, it is both happy and sad, dismaying and hopeful, and filled with rich, traditional-sounding music made almost entirely by strings.
Once comes with its own musical pre-show, where all the cast assembles onstage for a concert. In every case, the actor must know how to both act and sing, but there is also a third requirement. Each and every actor must be able to play a musical instrument and, in some cases, more than one. The assembled cast brings a multitude of talents for playing various instruments. There is a myriad of different guitars, two or three mandolins, two violins, two celli, a banjo, an accordion, and, of course, a piano. Add to that a pennywhistle, a set of drums, an electric bass, and a tambourine, and you've got an orchestra that simply won't quit. Every cast member brings musical talent to the stage. This excellent assemblage of instruments remains onstage throughout the show, lending a rich tapestry of accompaniment to the two-dozen sensational songs.
Once tells the story of a man deeply in love with a girl who left him and Ireland to find a life in New York. Now he is devastated and so unhappy he wants to quit music. Despite the fact that it is music that is his joy, he is so miserable that even that brings him only pain. So he leaves his guitar in its case, open on the street, and walks away. He would keep walking, but he is brought up short by a voice. It is a woman's voice, but it is soft and gentle and nearly impossible to ignore.
Guy (David Toole) closes the concert with the first song of the show, "Leave." It is a powerful and deeply lamenting tale of break-up, and he sings it in a way that is staggeringly beautiful. It pricks up the ears of Girl (Morgan Parpan) – we never learn her name – who manages, with difficulty, to draw Guy out by telling him what she knows: his music is beautiful and he is in love, and he must fight for both. She also needs her vacuum cleaner repaired, something Guy is particularly suited to do, since his Da (David Bartlett) runs a vacuum cleaner repair shop.*
Girl comes up with a plan to get Guy to New York. He must use his music to gain him the funds to go, and they will do that by recording a demo at a Dublin soundstage. They will use the friends of Girl, who assemble in a Dublin music store, and her family, all of whom live in one apartment, and all of whom play music. So over the course of the next five days, Girl and Guy work together to make this pie-in-the-sky dream come true.
It's a very thin plot, but it is handled well by these actors, and it is really only a vehicle to get this many friends and neighbors together to play music. Girl's friend Billy (Jack Bondi) runs a music store downtown, and Guy and Billy, after a rough start, become good friends.
The first hurdle Guy must face in getting himself across the pond is money. Neither he nor Girl has any. But Girl has a way to get some, if Guy can convince a banker Girl knows that he is good enough to make money with his music. If they can borrow the money, they can get a recording session at a Dublin studio and make enough demo CDs to start Guy's music career in New York.
The music in this show is infectious, delightful, and exquisitely played by this cast. Parpan plays piano, and the duets between Guy and Girl are jaw-droppingly sublime. The third song of the evening is "Falling Slowly," the show's central piece, and the vocals these two create are mesmerizing.
Girl's sister, Reza (Megan Ort), as well as the rest of this musical family, participate in making Guy's music. Ort's voice is spectacular, and she has many solos without words as her voice wafts over many an undercurrent of finely-woven support.
One of the longest – and most impressive – bios in the program is that of Tracy Thomas, who plays Girl's mother, Baruska. Thomas, classically trained, is an operatic as well as a cabaret performer who teaches voice at the Dept. of Dance and Theatre at the University of Memphis. This is only a small portion of her pedigree. Tracy is a force to be reckoned with who provides both solos ("Baruska's Story") and background vocals all evening. She plays multiple instruments, including the accordion, which in the music world is the definition of most difficult to learn. As the show progresses, Baruska and Guy's Da start seeing each other.
One of the aspects to watch in this show is the dynamic choreography the cast performs. It is built into the music as the cast moves in cadence about the stage. There is no "dance" in Once, but this choreography adds immensely to the overall impression that this work will leave on you. Choreographer Lisette Glodowski has created a mood with her dance that is part and parcel of what happens onstage.
Everything in this show is written to excite, and this cast did everything in their power – which is considerable – to bring it to dazzling life. In order to pull this show off, your ensemble had better be stellar, and I can not imagine a finer combination than the one Theatre Raleigh has compiled for this performance. Once is going to be very difficult production to equal in the year ahead.
As musicals go, Once is in a class by itself. This story is told by the music; it is another member of the cast. Musical Director Joanna Li and Director Tim Seib have worked flawlessly to bring about a show that might have lasted much longer than it does. You'll find yourself wishing, at the close of the performance, that it had.
Once continues through Sunday, September 16. For more details on this production, please view the sidebar.
*Da,an Irish contraction of Dad, is the name of this character.