THEATER REVIEW: “Once” @ Beck Center by Laura Kennelly

Through Sun 2/24

Once is a deeply spiritual work though that might not be obvious from its completely secular environment (a Dublin street, a bar, a vacuum repair shop, a hillside). We see love, charity and hope manifested in this tender story that never descends to sentimentality (or religiosity for that matter).

Once began as a film (it’s on Amazon right now), written and directed by John Carney. The musical came later, with book by Enda Walsh, and music and lyrics (also heard in the film) by Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová. The adaptation won a stack of awards, including the Tony Award for Best Musical, a Grammy Award for Best Musical Theatre Album, and four Drama Desk Awards including Outstanding Musical.

I was lucky enough to see Once on Broadway, and I thought then how wonderful it was to find a cast that could “do it all” — actors, instrumentalists, and vocalists — and pull off such a show. It’s still wonderful here in the Beck Center production starring fourteen Baldwin Wallace students under the guidance of director Victoria Bussert. Musical direction by Matthew Webb,  choreography by Gregory Daniels, stage design by Kellie Green Fox and Jordan Janota all contributed to one of the best shows I’ve seen at the Beck.

When Once opens, a Dublin street musician called “Guy” (the only names we have for the two leads are generic, as in “the guy” and “the girl”) sings a mournful song, “Leave.” Guy (Jake Slater) thinks that he’s alone and it seems clear that he’s seriously depressed. We know this because he sets his guitar down and begins to walk away. No musician I’ve met would leave a precious instrument behind.

But Girl (Kelsey Brown) has been watching, and before he can leave, she speaks directly to Guy with a series of questions (in convincingly accented English). There’s a no-nonsense vibe about her when she wonders what he is doing. Girl is an immigrant from the Czech Republic. She is dragging a broken Hoover vacuum cleaner that “doesn’t suck.” Guy’s father just happens to own a repair shop. Bingo!

Brown’s captivating portrayal of Girl, manifests hope and radiates love. Girl’s flat-footed practicality contrasts with Slater’s nuanced portrayal of Guy’s self-destructive, self-pitying behavior. His Irish accent reminds us that some of the most romantic writers were Irish (such as William Butler Yeats and James Joyce). But by story’s end, thanks to their interactions through music (and a Hoover), both characters, especially Guy, seem transformed. Although Guy tries to show his gratitude to Girl, via a material present, we suspect that his greatest gift to her is that she can see he has regained confidence in his music.

Brown and Slater make a such dream duo, both strong and confident, that it’s hard to believe they are still college undergraduates. (Well, all right, they are undergrads at Baldwin Wallace and part of its select musical theatre program, but even so ….) The strong supporting cast also contributes mightily to creating a world for Guy and Girl to sing their way around. The musical numbers fit perfectly into the story. “Falling Slowly,” “When Your Mind’s Made Up,” “If You Want Me” and even the comic “Broken Hearted Hoover Fixer Sucker Guy” stand out, but all are enjoyable.

The functional and simple set resembled the Broadway set. Various changes to switch to different places modeled the art of cooperative stagecraft as cast members moved chairs and other props in well-rehearsed steps. Everyone stayed on stage most of the time and, when needed, served as an orchestra playing a wide range of instruments.

BOTTOM LINE: A strikingly wonderful production of an amazing show with a great cast. (I may have to see it again.) It’s the perfect antidote to February — but really any other season as well.

[Written by by Laura Kennelly]

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