Take one of the best (and quite possibly the most original) Broadway smashes of the past decade, cast it with some of SoCal’s most gifted actor-singer-musicians, give it a fresh new staging that may actually improve on the Broadway original, and you’ve got Once, as thrilling a South Coast Repertory season opener as any musical theater lover could wish for.

The tale of a Dublin street musician (a Guy still pining for his split-for-NYC ex) and a Czech immigrant (a Girl with an out-of-country husband and in-country child) and their whirlwind weekend of songwriting and love, Once chalked up eight Tony wins (including Best Musical of 2012), and not just because of its Irish boy-meets-Czech girl love story.

Like the 2007 John Carney-written-and-directed movie smash on which it is based, Enda Walsh’s charmer of a book has busker “Guy” meeting immigrant “Girl” over a broken vacuum cleaner, then embarking on the dual adventures of recording a CD of his songs and falling hopelessly in love.

Also imported from the film is the catchiest Irish Indie Pop score ever heard on a Broadway stage, songs by film’s stars Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová that take us from the aching-hearted “Leave” and “The Hill” to the glorious full-cast harmonies of “Gold” and “When Your Mind’s Made Up.”

Unlike its cinematic source, however, Once The Musical unfolds almost wholly in a Dublin pub with its entire supporting ensemble onstage from well before curtain to its final bows, the ten of them not only portraying one colorful featured character after another but accompanying each other on accordion, banjo, cello, concertina, drums, electric bass, guitar, harmonica, mandolin, percussion, ukulele, and violin.

Hardly a new concept for a Broadway show (director John Doyle did the same with this actors-musician revivals of Sweeney Todd and Company) but one that works even better in Once, if only because Guy & Girl’s story is as much about making music as it is about making love.

It makes perfectly delightful sense for Guy’s repair-shop-owner father and the studio engineer they approach about making Guy’s demo and the bank manager they go to for a loan and the pub regulars they enlist as musicians to be part of Once’s ten-piece orchestra (twelve if you count Guy on guitar and Girl on piano).

Director Kent Nicholson adds his own fresh touches to what was already a uniquely “director’s-concept” show (John Tiffany won a Tony for the Broadway original), with choreographer Kelly Todd doing likewise in musical numbers that alternate between Irish foot stomps and more stylized backup moves.

Rustin Cole Sailors, tall, dark, handsome, and radiating rock star charisma and sex appeal, and Amanda Leigh Jerry, fresh out of Carnegie Mellon and ready for musical theater stardom with an irresistible blend of beauty, brains, and quirky charm, could not make for a more perfect Guy and Girl, and each has instrumental chops to match.

Supporting performers are equally marvelous, in particular the delightful Scott Waara as Guy’s grizzled, bearded Da with a heart as deep as the sea; a wild-and-crazy Zach Spound as Svec, the band’s kooky Czech drummer with a penchant for tearing off his pants; an endearing Andy Taylor as a Bank Manager whose sweetness of nature is matched by his hilariously out-of-tune voice and a distaste for breasts; an adorably dorky Alex Nee as Andrej, a Czech fast food clerk with dreams as big as his moustache; and above all an irrepressibly winning Nicholas Mongiardo-Cooper as Billy, the social-skills-deprived music shop owner so vital to Guy and Girl’s recording dreams.

Scott Anthony’s Eamon, Christian Pedersen’s Emcee, Marnina Schon’s Ex-Girlfriend, Cassidy Stirtz’s Reza, and Diane King Vann’s Baruska may play smaller roles but they are no less sensational than their castmates, with special mention due Taylor’s added role as musical director extraordinaire.

Once looks fabulous on Ralph Funicello’s Irish bar set, its great big upstage mirror providing a from-the-back view of key sequences in addition to the accustomed audience perspective. Leah Piehl’s costumes have just the right lived-in look these Dubliners (either native or foreign-born) would sport. Lap Chi Chu’s lighting design is one of his best, and never more so when it goes gold for “Gold.” Sound designer Lindsay Jones provides a pitch-perfect vocal-instrumental mix. Dialect coach Philip D. Thomson ensures accents that sound both authentic and understandable.

Kari Hayter is assistant director. Sue Karutz is stage manager and Joshua Marchesi is production manager. Kimberly Colburn is dramaturg. Casting is by Joanne DeNaut, CSA. Jacqueline Vellandi and Aoife McEvoy alternate as the pre-teen Ivanka.

I fell for Once three years ago when its National Tour stopped in both L.A. and the OC, and it may even be better at South Coast Rep thanks both to its more intimate Segerstrom Stage setting and a cast that proves SoCal talents every bit the equal of any East Coast visitors.

Simply put, Once guarantees musical theater lovers a Once Upon An Absolutely Magical Time.

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South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa.

–Steven Stanley
September 10, 2017
Photos: Jordan Kubat/SCR









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