Once – Theatre Review: The Phoenix Theatre Company, Phoenix

If your knowledge of Once begins and ends with the 2007 movie, or you’ve seen either the Broadway show or the national touring production but don’t know the film, there are a number of surprises awaiting you at The Phoenix Theatre Company‘s new, invigorating production of John Carney’s original musical creation, directed by Pasha Yamotahari.

For moviegoers who recall the sweet, low-budget, and slightly rough-around-the-edges look of an independently made drama of the big screen, despite the film’s obvious musical foundation, it might have been difficult to picture just how this small story of two struggling musicians of Dublin, Ireland would translate to a Broadway musical. The first surprise will be how well the transition is made.

The story of a guy and girl who meet on the streets of Dublin – he can repair vacuum cleaners, she has a hoover “that doesn’t suck” – and how their bittersweet relationship develops is the center of a plot that, away from the movies, now feels funnier, warmer, and more accessible. Plus, the character of the female lead feels that little more developed. She’s now the girl you expected her to be

Underlining just how universal the thoughts and feelings of the two leads of Once can be, they’re known throughout as simply Guy and Girl. Guy (Kyle Sorrell) is about to give it all up. As a busker singing on the streets of Dublin, Guy accompanies himself on the guitar as he sings of a one-sided love. Then, when done, he walks away, intentionally leaving his guitar behind. But Girl (Michelle Chin), a young immigrant from the Czech Republic with an accent to match, was listening and wants to ask him questions. “I know you can talk,” she tells him when he remains silent. “I just heard you sing.”

Guy’s songs were written mostly for Ex-Girlfriend (Jessica Moffitt), but the relationship is done. She’s moved to New York, he’s still in Dublin. Because of the memory of unrequited love and the pain he feels because of it, Guy is leaving his music behind and will concentrate instead on the job at hand; he’s a vacuum cleaner repairman in his father’s shop. But Girl has a winning if not determined, direct manner. Grabbing the page of one of Guy’s songs, she uses the sheet music as a way of having them both play together, she on the piano, he on his guitar. Together they perform the show’s (and the film’s) most familiar song, Falling Slowly. Once concluded, Girl insists he could win his girlfriend back by singing her that song. From there, an unexpected friendship between Guy and Girl emerges, the cultural and emotional gap between them bridged by their music, but there’s still a caveat. “The transaction is not complete until you make the hoover suck,” Girl insists.

For theatergoers already familiar with the show as it was on Broadway and how it differs from the film, the surprise is going to be the production’s look. The original set was a bar in an Irish pub that sat upstage center. Chairs and tables lined stage left and stage right. When locations changed and a scene would take place in either a bank or a rehearsal studio, the ensemble would simply re-arrange the chairs suggesting a different venue. The approach here is something quite different.

Looking photo-realistic with an almost perfect recreation of a street corner in Dublin, one that incorporates a raised sidewalk, street bollards, two Irish pubs, one painted red, the other, green, and lighted second-floor rooms with decorated window sill flower arrangements, plus a bridge and a skyline view of the city, it’s as if designer Aaron Jackson had gathered all of the snaps director Yamotahari had taken while on his recent trip to Dublin and used them as a blueprint for one grand street design, built specifically to fill the size and scope of Phoenix Theatre’s main stage. It’s an extraordinary feature, full of items that’s fun to explore, not only for the appreciation of the exacting work that went into the smallest of details but also the ability to read the authentic signs on the store windows, including the projection of Kristen Peterson’s video displays that change from time to time on the two main windows of the pubs. The urge to drink a pint of Guinness from just seeing the word has never felt so strong.

Take a look at any of the publicity production pictures by Reg Madison and you’ll see with Jackson’s set, lit so well and so effectively by Daniel Davisson’s lighting design, there’s not a bad shot among any of them. But it can also work against the show. Because the set appears so effective as a realistic street corner design backdrop, when characters pull up a chair or a table to suggest a different location, it can’t help but look as if all business, no matter where it’s supposed to occur, appear to be conducted in the open, on the street in front of the pubs, instead of in a bank manager’s office or a recording studio.

The cast serves as the show’s orchestra. Thus when Girl plays the piano while accompanying Guy on his guitar, Chin and Sorrell, both talented musicians, are playing their own instruments. When Lauren McKay’s bank manager explains from behind her desk that she also plays, there she’ll be in the rehearsal studio with her guitar, as will all characters as musicians with their violins, mandolin, and various other acoustic instruments.

From the pre-show, street corner jam until the Falling Slowly reprise at the conclusion, the songs and the musical performances, under Alan Ruch’s musical direction and director Yamotahari’s staging, are a joy. Writer Edna Walsh, who adapted John Carney’s original screenplay, further developed the story and its characters for the stage giving both Guy and Girl a more rounded and added level of relatable believability, fully realized by Sorrell and Chin, including the Irish and Czech accents. But it’s the songs and how they’re sung in the live show that adds a further soulful, bittersweet layer to the affair.

You’ll leave Phoenix Theatre with two things in mind.  Should you buy or download the original cast CD to experience those emotions again, or should you return to the theatre box-office as soon as possible for a second visit before word spreads and the rest of the run is already sold out? I’d recommend the latter.

Once continues at The Phoenix Theatre Company in Phoenix until June 16

Pictures Courtesy of Reg Madison Photography

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