How Many Times Should You See Once? Twice — Three Times (is) a Maybe
You’ve heard them. You know them. There are people out there who will say, “I don’t like musicals.” And while that blanket statement may be unfair, it’s also often well earned. Many musicals are like fondue — large chunks slathered in cheese that leave you with the feeling that you’ve had an experience — but one that just doesn’t sit right in the pit of your stomach.
In many ways, Once is a musical for people who don’t like musicals. There’s a vibrancy and energy permeating the show, but it never goes over the top. While there are singing soliloquies and moments pining for lost and unrequited love, it never descends — as is often the case in musicals — into unintended self-parody or saccharine-infused camp.
Once, like its subject, retains its earthiness and raw grit — and that grounded foundation affords its supremely talented cast the foundation upon which they can create a masterpiece.
At its heart, Once is a “meet-cute” story. But there is so much more richness and depth to the story that’s matched by the warmth and resonance of the music that carries the plot forward. There is such an incredible depth of quality to the music, with layers upon layers of instruments combining to weave a tonal tapestry that envelops the audience. And there’s a subtlety of content that’s a joy to watch — during one song, the two violinists, though secondary to the action, complement each other in playing one mournful note that is sustained through their impeccable timing and co-ordination.
As grand as the production is, it’s the little things that make it stand out. The transitions from scene to scene are inspired — combining movement, precision, and whimsy all the while continuing the musical accompaniment. It’s a wonder to behold and the cleverness is clearly appreciated by the audience.
Musically, it’s inspired. And it starts right from the pre-show integration of cast and audience — the stage serves as the pre-show and intermission bar. The cast members come out, intersperse with the crowd, and form a musical circle that’s riotous and joyful. Each performer gets his or her moment to shine, but it’s their cohesion that transforms this “improvised” jam session into an exquisitely choreographed performance that still feels honest, raw, and genuine.
The leads are spectacular — Jeremy Walmsley’s Guy and Amanda LeBlanc’s Girl mesh beautifully in every possible way. They share a wonderfully sweet chemistry and their voices are perfectly matched. They carry much of the vocal performance throughout the play and they are incredibly pleasant to listen to and watch. They also pull off their respective accents — Guy’s Irish and Girl is Czech — in a way that’s believable without sacrificing comprehension.
And the supporting cast is sublime. While there are standouts — notably Alicia Toner’s Reza and Daniel Williston’s Billy — as an ensemble they truly support the production, always on stage, in the shadows, providing ambient noise, background music, and transitions. Their ability to seamlessly integrate with the main point of focus, without distracting from the action, is a testament both to the brilliance of the actors and the skill of the director Tracey Flye.
The choreography is well thought out and effective; there’s a fantastic interplay between ancillary characters; there are moments of welcome humour that don’t feel forced; and there’s an ending that’s extremely satisfying and, dare I say it, realistic for a genre that often deals in fantasy.
There’s very little wrong with this production. If I’m going to nitpick, I’d point to the set. And that’s a hard thing to do because it is so beautifully crafted and realistic. But it’s also so dominant. The production-long presence of the bar sometimes makes it a bit challenging to recognize location changes. Though the cast does many clever and subtle prop placements to note location, the fact is that whether the cast is in the studio, in the music shop, or at one of the characters’ homes, the bar is still overwhelmingly present.
But overall? Once is a production worthy of multiple viewings — and it’s filled with music that will stay with you for a long time.