ONCE: It’s Complicated
A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis
At: The November Theatre Marjorie Arenstein Stage
Performances: February 8 – March 3, 2019
Ticket Prices: $36-63
Info: (804) 282-2620 or www.virginiarep.org
I may be among the minority of those who never saw – or even heard of – the 2007 movie, Once, on which this musical is based. But that didn’t stop me from becoming totally immersed in Once on VaRep’s November Theatre stage. As a matter of fact, musical seems too narrow a term to encompass this production.
Get to the theater by 7:30 for an 8:00pm show. There are two vendors in the lobby – who later stroll the aisles of the theater for the first 5-10 minutes of the show – selling beer. A jam session starts in the lobby and makes its way down the aisles and onto the stage, sharing the aisles with the incoming audience. It’s all very loud and festive and inclusive – an all-encompassing theatrical experience quite unlike any other. The Irish accents and folk dance enhance the sense of adventure. (I assume the Irish and Czech accents were pretty authentic; after awhile I became some engrossed in the play that it didn’t matter.)
Once is based on the motion picture of the same name, written and directed by John Carney. The music and lyrics for the musical are by Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová, with book by Enda Walsh. For this production, William James Mohney has designed a moody, multi-purpose set that serves as a music shop, a recording studio, a vacuum repair shop as well as the apartment above, and more. A raised stage, a few chairs, a slew of instruments – it’s all very minimal, but the lighting (by Joe Doran), the props, and the movement create the necessary spaces. Indeed, in the final scene, Girl and Guy are physically only a few feet apart, but she is in her apartment in Dublin while he is in New York – and they are singing the same song.
For those who, like me, are not familiar with the story, the two lead characters, who are nameless, are Guy, a talented Irish singer and songwriter whose life has come to a standstill since his girlfriend moved to New York and Girl, an energetic and insightful Czech woman who bursts unexpectedly into his life and encourages him to make music and go after his lost love in New York. But this friendship seems always to be on the verge of romance, and at one point, catching some air and studying the night sky, Girl tells Guy – in Czech – that she loves him. He asks for a translation, but she mutters something about the rain and runs off.
There is magic between the two – Ken Allen Neely and Katherine Fried – both of whom I believe are new to VaRep and the Richmond stage. Their singing flows naturally and is often intimate and romantic, in contrast to the ensemble numbers which are often rousing and more than once set the audience to clapping along. We root for their love, but it is not to be – at least not in the physical sense.
I also tremendously enjoyed Jon Patrick Penick, the owner of the music shop who freely lent Girl the use of a piano and became a part of Guy’s demo band. Penick added a comic touch with his pretense of gruffness and his heart of gold. His unexpected friendship with the capitalist bank manager, Andrew Nielson, added a bit of extra flavor to the second act. Lauren Wright is a powerhouse as Reza, singing, dancing, and seducing Billy with equal enthusiasm.
All of the ensemble actors are also part of the orchestra and some are part of Guy’s demo band as well, acting, singing, and playing all the instruments. And they dance. VaRep artistic director Nathaniel Shaw has directed with an easy pace that varies between the frenetic and the reflective, and Shaw’s choreography – which moves the cast even when they aren’t dancing – is organic and fluid. Once is unexpected, unconventional, and thoroughly enjoyable.
Julinda D. Lewis is a dancer, teacher, and writer who was born in Brooklyn, NY and now lives in Eastern Henrico County.
Photo Credits: Jay Paul