If you’ve watched the story “Once” before, you know the impact it can have. My wife, a veteran viewer of the original Irish film and the staged musical that followed, knew to bring her handkerchief in case TheatreSquared’s version of the tale moved her. She was smart to be prepared.
How “Once” is presented hasn’t really changed the impact of the show, and T2’s current staging, which runs through Sept. 23, certainly has its moments of power and gut-checking emotion. The unnamed female lead, Girl, always tells her male counterpart, Guy, that he’s got heart and soul in his songs. And because those songs breathe with life, so too does the show.
Their relationship/fateful crossing starts quickly, and Girl catches Guy in a self-made moment of drama. Guy has just decided that he’s going to give up – probably just playing music, but perhaps more than that. Actor Barry DeBois’ version of Guy for this production is a broodier, moodier one than I remember. Girl has a way of coaxing information out of people immediately after she meets them, which is convenient for the musical storytelling format but also a wonderful way of moving through the clutter of life. Guy, we learn, has written these songs about his ex-girlfriend, who now lives in New York City. He’s plotting a trip to New York as well, but without the expectation that they’ll get back together.
Girl isn’t without her internal conflicts. She’s a Czech immigrant living in Dublin with all of her family members except for her husband. They’ve separated for a vague reason but remain in contact on behalf of their young daughter, Ivonka.
What: TheatreSquared’s “Once”
When: Wednesday – Sunday through Sept. 23
Where: Nadine Baum Studios, Fayetteville
Cost: $17-$48; a limited number of $10 are available for those under 30 years old
Tickets: 479-443-5600 or theatre2.org
Specificity and detail are important in our creative forms. We can find a connection with characters when we realize they drink the same coffee we do or we share job titles or something. But that’s not the approach of “Once.” We never learn their names. We don’t know why Girl and her family have moved to Dublin. We don’t know why Guy and his girlfriend are no longer together other than his extreme mopiness (although that may have arrived or grown deeper after her departure). We don’t know the Girl’s profession, either. In the movie, she walks the busy Dublin streets to sell flowers. We’re stripped of that employment detail in the musical version, and we’re left with only specificity in emotions. The onstage world of once is fragile and fleeting, but not hopeless.
At its core, “Once” is about the people in life you meet only in passing but still have a profound impact on you. We get the sense that Girl and Guy will never be the same after their not-quite-a-week-long series of encounters. As T2 director Amy Herzberg told me before the show, there’s a very limited pool of actors who can play their own instruments, convincingly sing these songs (in dialect, no less), move around and act at the same time. If you look at the list of actors brought in for the production, you’ll see that seven of the cast members currently in Fayetteville have performed the show at regional theaters or as part of the national touring cast. Elisabeth Evans, this production’s Girl, performed in “Once” on Broadway, and she and DeBois have worked on the same production before, although not together as the leads. I don’t recall any actor’s performance in last night’s (Aug. 30) performance being anything less than stellar.
“Once” also tells us that we can’t have the things we don’t chase, but that we also don’t end up with everything we pursue. In other words, there can be immense value in the chase alone.
TheatreSquared’s presentation plucks the bulk of the action from the traditional Irish pub of the original telling of the story and places it instead on the streets of Dublin. There are a few other twists, too. One of the Broadway version’s most innovative and imaginative elements was how to treat the ensemble members. When they aren’t interacting with Guy and Girl, ensemble members sit on chairs that circle the stage and continue to play their instruments as the house backing band. TheatreSquared’s stage size might be nearly the same as a Broadway stage, but the size of the audience and seating area is not. Director Amy Herzberg has attempted to capitalize on the intimacy of the space by bringing the musicians even closer to the audience, and ensemble members sometimes sit in the audience.
And instead of the full onstage bar that opens to patrons during the intermission, the cast members (with the exception of Guy and Girl) perform traditional Irish pub songs in the lobby of Nadine Baum Studios as patrons are shuffling in for the night. Make sure you get there early if you want to hear the show.
And make sure you’re adequately prepared for the drama that unfolds. You might want to bring a handkerchief, too.