Live theater productions are always meant to entertain, to give us a break from our day-to-day lives—the stresses of work, bills, cranky neighbors and broken-down cars.
Every now and then, however, we see something onstage that is truly transformative—something that opens up our soul and takes us somewhere we’ve never been before. That is the case with CVRep’s production of Once.
Based on John Carney’s 2007 film, the musical’s book was written by Enda Walsh, with music and lyrics by Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova. The Broadway production won eight Tony Awards in 2012, including Best Musical, Best Actor and Best Book. In 2013, it won the Grammy Award for Best Musical Theater Album.
The magic begins as you step into the theater lobby, where a few musicians are enthusiastically jamming. As you take your seat moments later, Irish troubadours appear onstage, with a few strategically placed among audience members.
One of the most impressive things about Once is that every single cast member is not only a highly skilled musician—there are multiple violinists, pianists, several guitarists, a banjo player and even an accordion player—but they are all also strong singers, dancers and actors. They are all “quadruple threats.”
These instrumentalists never exit. When not featured, they simply fade into a dark corner of the stage. Their movements feel organic and magical.
The story is set in Dublin and revolves around two young musicians, Guy (Ken Allen Neely) and Girl (Claire-Frances Sullivan). Guy, a brooding Irishman, is devastated by a broken love affair, and is planning to throw it all away—abandoning his guitar on the street. Hearing him sing one last love song, Girl, a no-nonsense Czech, immediately recognizes his talent, and also sees in him a kindred soul: Her husband has walked out, leaving her to raise their young daughter alone.
Girl decides that Guy needs to take his music to the next level: He needs to record a CD and head to New York to both seek his fortune and reunite with the woman who broke his heart. The professional and personal connection between these two develops steadily—and their strong chemistry is hard to deny.
In the lead roles, both Neely and Sullivan are perfection. Neely is tall, muscular and ruggedly handsome; he nails both the character’s vulnerability and his anger. An accomplished guitarist, he is also a splendid singer. Appropriately tender and romantic on the ballads, his voice soars with power end passion on the bigger numbers. After seeing this production, it’s hard to imagine anyone one else in this role.
Sullivan is spectacular. Her Czech accent rings true, which is not an easy feat. While Girl is petite, self-controlled and practical—“I’m always serious; I’m Czech!” she says—we sense a small fire raging inside. She handles the funny moments and the heartbreak with equal aplomb, and is quite skilled on the piano. However, what really stands out is her singing. Her voice is angelic, with no vocal break and no excessive vibrato. It is captivating.
The supporting players are all excellent. A few standouts include Adam Huel Potter as the brash Billy; Piper Bruce as Guy’s ex-girlfriend; Emily Mikesell as Girl’s mother, Baruska; and Paul Lincoln as the bank manager.
Jimmy Cuomo knocks it out of the park again with the set. A moody, old-fashioned Irish bar is transformed into Guy’s bedroom or a recording studio simply by adding a bench or rolling out a piano. The lighting (Moira Wilkie), sound (Joshua Adams) and costumes (Sara Soto) are all terrific.
Special mention must be made of Michael Reno’s musical direction. Every musical number—from the rousing Irish jigs to the haunting solos and gorgeous vocal harmonies—is stellar. There are many exceptional musical moments, but the highlight has got to be “Falling Slowly,” which won an Academy Award for Best Original Song for the movie version of Once. This show is all about music, and to make it all work, you’ve got to have someone at the helm who really knows what they’re doing. Reno was the perfect choice.
Many productions have strong casts, wonderful sets, interesting storylines and/or memorable music, but Once has all of that. But what sets this show apart is the seamlessness of it all: the fading into the background of the onstage musicians, the transforming of the set, the segues from tender moments to exhilarating dance numbers—it all just flows. There is not one false moment or awkward pause. The whole evening has an ethereal quality to it.
Director Adam Karsten, in his first season as CVRep’s artistic director, deserves the credit for pulling this all together and orchestrating the magic. If this show is an indication of what else is to come at CVRep, local audiences are in for numerous treats in the years to come.
I have had the pleasure of reviewing some impressive shows in the desert over the years, particularly at CVRep, so believe me when I say: This production of Once is the most moving, innovative fusion of acting, singing, dancing and instrumental music I have ever seen.
It is simply spectacular. Do yourself a favor—go see it.
Once will be performed at 7 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday; and 2 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, through Saturday, March 11 (with an added 2 p.m. show on Wednesday, March 8), at the CVRep Playhouse, 68510 E. Palm Canyon Drive, in Cathedral City. Tickets are $63. For tickets or more information, call 760-296-2966, or visit www.cvrep.org.
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