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REVIEW: ‘Once’ at Bucks County Playhouse is a spellbinding musical love story

Tina Stafford as BaruŠka, Matt DeAngelis
as Guy and Mackenzie Lesser-Roy as Girl (Photo: Joan Marcus)

By John Millman-Dwyer

Regardless of its pedigree, “Once” is a story that is not familiar to quite a few theatergoers. Originally, it was a 2007 Irish film about a Dublin busker who meets and falls in love with a Czech girl on the streets where he is playing his guitar and singing.

The story parallels the original stars of the movie,  Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová. They wrote the music and lyrics to the entire show, with the exception of the song “Gold” by Fergus O’Farrell. When completed, the show won audience favorite at important film festivals like the 2007 Sundance Film Festival and the Dublin Film Festival. It also won Best Foreign Film at The Independent Spirit Awards. Their song “Falling Slowly” won the Academy Award for Best Original Song, and they also were nominated for a Grammy for that song. They did win the Grammy for Best Musical Theater Album. It was on 35 film critics top 10 best film lists for 2007, and it was listed as one of the most romantic films of the past 25 years in 2008, coming in at number three.

Brandon Ellis, Jacob Brandt, Andy Paterson, Jenn Chandler and Matt
DeAngelis I(Photo: Joan Marcus)

Nevertheless, it is a touching romance that gets overshadowed by films or stage musical behemoths that have spectacle or deal with social issues. It is so special, so magnificently beautiful, that it is a must-see if you love musical theater. It is intimate, moving, an unforgettable love story.

It became a Broadway musical and won a Tony as the Best Musical in 2012 and an additional seven more, including Best Book. It does not get performed that much in community theater, college campuses or regional theater due to the requirements needed to be in the show. All baker’s dozen of its cast members need to play a musical instrument, with the exception of the child in the show.

The skill sets of all professional actors are expanding. A triple threat actor in the past was an actor/singer/dancer, but it is becoming more necessary to include the ability to play multiple instruments. The character of Svec, played by Seth Eliser, who is also dance captain, plays six. This extraordinary cast of actors have it all and then some. The show is like going out to a bar with friends who have lovely accents and you are having such a grand time, you wish the party would never end. Over two hours, the show passes in the wink of an eye. Such is the Irish/Czech way in this lovely musical. The beginning of the show is a pre-set at the attached pub next door, The Deck, where the musicians are playing Celtic songs or some such.

The main characters are simply called Guy and Girl, played beautifully by Matt DeAngelis and MacKenzie Lesser-Roy. He is thirty-something and thinking about giving up music, but the love songs that he plays on the street are so honest and beautiful that Girl who listens says he must not leave his art. He lives above a vacuum repair shop that his “Da” owns. She tells him that her vacuum does not suck and she needs someone to help her fix her “Hoover.” Da seems taken by her, and bit by bit guy and girl become more and more attracted to each other. He has written his songs for an ex-girlfriend, who has moved to New York City. The girl’s status is not initially known. But it is not convenient, or so it may seem, to start a new love relationship. But both are “Falling Slowly,” a song originally inspired Guy’s ex-girlfriend.

(Photo: Joan Marcus)

The set changes that occur in the story are done in the simplest of ways, as they go to a bar for open mic, a bank to get money to support a demo tape, and a music store where Girl goes to play music. Girl is also a musician and plays piano and writes her own songs. She can not afford to own her own piano, but goes to the music store to play. The store’s owner, Billy, is a rambunctious bear of a man who has feelings for Girl. She feels affection for him, but that is all.

Kudos to director Travis Greisler and casting agent Geoff Josselson for the excellent casting. I don’t think I have ever singled out a casting director, but this cast is so spot on, my fingers can’t help themselves typing this “thank you” note. Beyond the leads, Brandon Ellis is brilliant comic relief as Billy, the charming and pugnacious music store owner. Jenn Chandler has played the role of Bank Manager before. Originally, it was played by a male, and she originated it as a female role. She is delightful as she evolves from staid bank officer to music advocate. Da beguiles with Barry Fitzgerald lyricism by Andy Patterson. Both Tina Stafford as the Girl’s mother, Lauren Wright as Reza, the Girl’s best friend and Elizabeth Flanagan as the Ex-Girlfriend are interwoven so realistically in this tale of love and ties that bind that seems so very Irish. And seems so much about how music makes us all family.

(Photo: Joan Marcus)

All the production values are top notch, but I do want to single out something I noticed. The set by Nate Bertone looks like the inside of a guitar. It is a beautiful concept. It is earthy and totally Celtic, with the browns of the wood and a sense of the land. In the middle of it all, the sound hole of the guitar looking up to the heavens and the stars seems to give voice to those who live in it. For many, their lives are music and it surrounds them. Hats off to Bertone for realizing this.

“Once” is so good, you should see it twice.

“Once” is playing at Bucks County Playhouse through Nov. 30.

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