Laguna Playhouse’s production of Once — now playing through Sunday, March 26th — is not only a triumphant celebration of the 2007 film that inspired this rendition alongside a previous Broadway run, but it is a rare case where the show functions as much like a concert as it does a narrative. The cast members act, sing, dance, and play a variety of instruments; and, even more impressively, roughly half are multi-instrumentalists who make what is objectively a complex process look astonishingly easy. There’s no mistaking the otherworldly talent on display, either, given the fact that this specific cast is front, center, and inside an intimate theatre where their collective musical stylings can be maximally appreciated. Ultimately, this is how Once was always meant to be experienced.
This Tony, Grammy, Drama Desk and Lawrence Olivier award-winning musical, in conjunction with the film which won Best Original Song at the Academy Awards for “Falling Slowly,” is the quintessential love story based in Dublin, Ireland between an Irish musician, simply known as “Guy,” who doubts his abilities, and Czech immigrant, “Girl,” who encourages him to get his music out into the world. Guy works with his Da (dad) to repair vacuums, and, in fact, this special skill becomes the catalyst for when the protagonists meet, particularly when the Girl’s Hoover no longer “sucks.” Lots of laughter, quirkiness, poignancy, and notable supporting characters envelop a burgeoning romance that matures as satisfyingly as the euphonious sounds on stage.
Director Steve Steiner, Choreographer Paula Hammons Sloan, and Musical Director Julia Hoffmann, who also doubles as a character, beautifully realize John Carney’s vision, Enda Walsh’s book, as well as Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová’s music and lyrics. Sound Designer Ian Wehrle similarly deserves much credit for mixing just the right amount of reverb into the live vocals and instruments, fashioning a celestial ambience. Likewise, Lighting Designer William Gibbons-Brown uses different hues to evoke the themes of certain songs, like “The Moon” and “Gold,” on Matthew Herman’s splendid, woodsy tavern-esque set where attendees can, during intermission, go up and order drinks from the bar.
The immersive nature and proximity to the stage, with nary a bad seat in the house, draws in observers from the moment they sit in their chairs even before showtime. A barnburner of a pre-show is nearly worth the price of admission alone as it features percussive taps, stomping feet, and instruments affixed to the bodies of the performers who fluidly move to a tempo that exponentially accelerates and is likely to be joined by clapping hands. The audience is already fully invested insofar that the premise can be propelled forward without hesitation.
Just as Keaton Eckhoff’s Guy finishes, with guitar in hand, expressively strumming and singing “Leave,” there is an immediate and appropriate audience response when Grace Belt’s Girl presumptuously walks in and questions why Guy puts his guitar down in a huff, instead imploring him to sing. As an “always serious” Czech, the foreigner Girl gets away with being inquisitive, if not downright pushy at times, which both Guy and the theatregoers accept. He needs inspiration and she needs someone to believe in; their sentiments and musical proclivities intertwine despite an ex-girlfriend whose rose-colored remembrances linger and a separated husband who may return.
Eckhoff and Belt, whose instrument of choice is the piano, are terrific individually and as a complementary duo. Eckhoff can emote the urgency of his character’s desire to be musically heard like in “Say It to Me Now,” be romantically wistful as in “Sleeping,” and even silly when he performs “Broken Hearted Hoover Fixer Sucker Guy.” Likewise, Belt earns oodles of spontaneous laughter with her persona’s forthright delivery and yet be gut-wrenching when she nearly steals the show at the piano with a heart-searing version of “The Hill.”
Of course, “Falling Slowly” is a crowd-pleaser, but “Gold,” including the version that culminates Act I and Act II’s breathtaking a cappella, is right there with it. “Gold” is also a testament to the proficiency of the company who are wonderfully harmonious as a united entity, whether they’re moving synchronously while vocalizing and playing their instruments or conveying an evocative stillness. If there is one quibble, it’s that the cast tends to sometimes slip in and out of their accents, but this is a minor issue that will likely remedy itself with future performances.
Guy’s Da is portrayed by Michael Naishtut who comes across as supportive of a father as anyone can hope for and dazzles with a prelude to the musical when he performs a solo on the mandolin. Lauren Witman is the Ex-Girlfriend, but where she really earns her keep is as a smooth-as-silk violinist. Moreover, James Michael McHale is the Bank Manager of whom a sum of money is requested as a loan by Eckhoff’s Guy to rent a professional studio for 24 hours, which is run by Morgan Hollingsworth’s Eamon. McHale is a charismatic guitarist who garners applause with the idiosyncratic “Abandoned in Bandon,” and Hollingsworth is perhaps the most versatile musician in the production given that he can be seen playing the guitar, mandolin, piano, and castanet, to name a few.
The Girl’s daughter, Ivanka, is represented by the gifted Becca Last and the Girl’s mother, Baruska, is depicted by Maryann DiPietro, who, when she isn’t marvelously manipulating the accordion, has great comic timing. Among the Girl’s fellow Czech flat mates are Grant Alexander Brown’s Andrej, Chris McGraw’s Svec, and Julia Hoffmann’s Reza. Brown is not only effortless on the bass and mandolin, but he has an invigorating physical presence in the Czech folk number “Ej, Pada, Pada, Rosicka,” as does Hoffmann who sizzles as both an electric violinist and a willing seductress. Multi-instrumentalist McGraw fully steps into his animated character who has an affinity for the English language and, interestingly, death metal where he stands out as a rock-star percussionist.
Furthermore, Will Huse deserves significant acclaim for his role as Billy, an Irish music shop owner with Spanish blood, who is an anti-capitalist artist at heart, knows kung fu, is enamored with Girl, and can thrill like a “butterfly on the dance floor.” Huse not only brings a lightheartedness to his performance, but his mannerisms give the plot a weight that would feel unsettlingly bare without him. As skilled as an actor he is, Huse additionally has the capacity to simultaneously rouse with a guitar and ukulele. Last, but not least, is the underrated Caitlin Ort who, as the Emcee, ingratiates herself to onlookers with her exceptional bowing of the cello.
Once continues to be a winner, with Laguna Playhouse’s production and space being conducive to a presentation that perhaps resonates the deepest. This Once is raw, true-to-life, bittersweet, and is impelled by virtuoso musicians who create a mellifluent experience that oftentimes borders on the transcendent.
Laguna Playhouse’s production of Once runs through Sunday, March 26th. For more information about the show, and to purchase tickets, please visit: lagunaplayhouse.com