ONCE, the Tony winning musical with a book by Enda Walsh and a score by Glen Hansard & Marketa Irglova, is a total joy from the moment you enter the theatre until it lovingly sends you on your way home. In many ways, it is an unconventional Broadway musical. It has only one multi-location set, beautifully designed by Jimmy Cuomo and lit to perfection by Moira Wilkie. There are no big dance numbers or crowds of townsfolk rushing onstage for the second chorus of an over-the-top production number. But it works beautifully!
The plot is a simple one that allows the characters to explore love, passion and look at the realities vs. the hopes of their lives. Guy (Ken Allen Neeley) has just about given up on his dream of becoming a famous singer/songwriter and is working in a vacuum repair shop with his father. Then he meets Girl (Claire-Frances Sullivan), a Czech immigrant full of fire and enough drive for both. She convinces him to stay the course and they start to put together the money and people needed to make a demo recording of his music. And just as quickly as they met, she falls in love with him. It’s a romance which burns too fast, lasting only five days. In spite of her drive and exterior perkiness, we clearly see she is hiding pain of her own. In the days following their meeting, they interact with a wide assortment of characters including a banker (Paul Lincoln) who clearly loves music far more than banking; Reza (Molly Coyne), another Czech immigrant whose passions are of a more earthy kind; and Andrej (Eileen Doan), a fast food worker who is longing to be a regional manager and Billy (Adam Huel Potter), the perpetually put-upon pub operator among several other interesting people. If you haven’t seen the movie ONCE on which this musical is based, then I don’t want to say any more lest this review becomes one big spoiler. Suffice it to say that, for the most part, the script maintains its believability and honesty.
The score is one of the best to come along in some time and includes the Oscar winner “Falling Slowly.” From comedic quickies to soaring ballads, the music feels genuinely Irish, as if generations have been singing these lyrics. The cast that director Adam Karsten has assembled is a glorious one. These performers are truly triple threats. They not only have to act and sing, which they all do very well, but each adult member of the cast is part of the orchestra playing one or more musical instruments. From the moment you enter the theatre, they make you feel not like an audience but a friend or neighbor who has dropped by the local pub for a visit. As Guy, Mr. Neeley delivers a strong performance with a voice to match and is an accomplished guitarist. Claire-Frances Sullivan, in the slightly showier role of Girl, solidly delivers her powerful second act solo, “The Hill,” never letting her character slip into melodrama or cliché and she plays one heck of a piano. The rest of the cast is amazing as well, but there is one other performer who really stood out and that is Molly Coyne. With a mane of fiery red hair she played the fiddle with an intensity to match. And when she sang, her voice was so beautiful and clear that I’m sure a few angels were jealous. Come early so you don’t miss her (and the rest of the cast’s) pre-show performance. You’ll be very glad you did!
Congratulations to director Adam Karsten, the entire cast and the production crew for delivering a magical evening of theatre.
ONCE is playing now through March 11, 2023 at CVRep in Cathedral City. To buy tickets or for further information, visit their website at www.CVRep.org