“Once,” based on a 2007 John Carney film of the same name, is not a typical musical. But it’s atypicality cannot be attributed to the fact that the orchestra, which consists of around a dozen string players and percussionists, also doubles as the cast. Nor can it be attributed to the fact that the show’s main characters are never named, and are referred to simply as “Guy” (Gregory Maheu) and “Girl” (Malinda Kathleen Reese) in the program.
No, the oddest thing about “Once” at Olney Theatre is that it seems to be so much less about its story or its characters than it is about the culture and personality of its setting: Dublin (the year it is set in is unspecified). The show tells the city’s story with respect, affection, and nuance, using its quirky cast of characters to depict different perspectives of life in Dublin. For Guy, the city is a dead-end; remaining in Dublin means abandoning his dream of writing and performing his songs and accepting his fate as a vacuum repairman. For Girl, a Czech immigrant, Dublin means a chance to live a normal life with her mother and daughter. Combined with the eccentricities of the supporting cast, these perspectives come together to form a complete portrait of the eccentric city.
If you enjoy theatre that explores the truths about human lives and relationships in fresh, interesting ways, “Once” is sure to please.
Direction by Marcia Milgrom Dodge does an excellent job painting this portrait. From even before the show’s first number, performers gather on stage to perform a series of folksy numbers as the audience finds their seats. This jam session serves well to welcome viewers into the world of “Once”: a world where music is healing, invigorating, captivating. From there, the audience is never allowed to forget the power and presence of music; the performers and their instruments are ever-present around the stage’s periphery.
Dodge’s choreography, too, is clever, subtle, and sleek. A movement as unimposing as a well-placed step (such as in the lyrical choreography that accompanies “If You Want Me”) can bear enormous weight in Dodge’s hands.
Equally calculated are the performers of the actors. Davon Ralston brings a spark of fun to Reza, a character who’s sexuality could easily be played with too much intensity. Nick DePinto is delightful as a nameless bank manager. John Sygar, perhaps my favorite of the supporting cast, provides some of the show’s finest comedic moments as Andrej, a fast food employee who has his heart utterly set on being promoted to the position of area manager.
Rounding out the ensemble were Carlos Castillo as Svec, Katie Chambers as Guy’s ex-girlfriend, Craig MacDonald as Da, Emily Mikesell as Baruska, Brian Reisman as Eamon, Dave Stishan as Billy, Kyleigh Fuller and Somaya Litmon as Ivanka (alternating), and Christopher Youstra as the emcee. And I again remind you that each of these performers (with the exceptions of the little girls playing Ivanka, of course) was also part of the on-stage orchestra, switching from accompanist to actor in an instant.
Youstra, along with playing the accordion, melodica, piano, and castanets also served as the show’s music director. One can only imagine how difficult a job that must have been in a show where music is such an integral part of the plot. The ability of the orchestra to seamlessly join with whichever character was performing within the context of the story (usually Maheu on guitar) was incredible. However, perhaps the most musically impressive moments of the show was when the instruments dropped out and the cast sang “Gold (Reprise)” entirely a capella. In a show in which Guy’s guitar acts as a symbol of hope, progress, and ambition, this number was haunting in its simplicity.
Despite the importance of “Once”’s entire company, Maheu and Reese’s characters provide most of the story’s substance. After all, over top of the larger conversation about culture, there hovers a romantic tragedy — tragic in that it seems to depict two people wholly in love but at the wrong place and in the wrong time.
The characters, at first, seem incongruous. Maheu’s Guy is a hard-hearted folk-rocker in the spirit of Roger from “Rent.” who begins the show ready to leave music behind altogether when it seems his songs are taking him nowhere. Reese’s Girl is witty, silver-tongued immigrant with dreams bigger than her means. At the show’s beginning, they seem like characters from different films; hers is a comedy, his a drama. But as the plot progresses it becomes quickly apparent that Girl is using her snarky persona to mask her difficult past, while Guy is more complex than his angsty opening number, appropriately entitled “Leave,” might imply.
Reese gives a deep, nuanced performance as Girl; the character’s pain is visible in the subtleties of her performance, offering the audience brief looks into the character’s inner workings without allowing her to break her façade. When that break finally comes in Girl’s sweeping, climactic number “The Hill,” one of the most gorgeous numbers in the show thanks to Reese’s clear, soaring vocals, the shift is all the more devastating.
Maheu’s portrayal of Guy is also wonderfully complex — quite a feat, considering he is the show’s most featured played by far. He creates a character that serves almost like an anti-hero; though the audience roots for him, he often stands in his own way and butts heads with the other characters. Maheu skillfully manages to make Guy’s faults prominent while creating a character we can sympathize with when the show reaches its conclusion.
Olney Theatre’s “Once” is a remarkable experience; it is joyous without being corny, familiar without feeling rote, high-energy without being tiring. If you enjoy theatre that explores the truths about human lives and relationships in fresh, interesting ways, “Once” is sure to please.
Running Time: 2 hours and fifteen minutes, with one intermission.
Advisory: Mature language.
Olney Theatre’s production of “Once” plays through March 10th. Olney Theater is located at 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Road, Olney, MD 20832. For tickets and information, click here or call the box office at (301) 924-3400.