Dallas — Comedy combines with a drama of hard choices, and Irish folk and acoustic pop meet to create an unfailingly engaging evening of musical theater in Once, the musical with music and lyrics by Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová and book by Enda Walsh, now playing at Theatre Three’s in-the-round Norma Young Arena Stage.
Originally created as a low-budget indie film in 2007 (which won an Oscar for the song “Falling Slowly”), Once moved from unexpected acclaim on screen to a successful run as a live musical off Broadway in 2011, followed by a long run on Broadway and ensuing international tours. Theatre Three’s production, designed by Clare Floyd DeVries and directed by Marianne Galloway, takes advantage of the inherent intimacy of a musical in which the 12 members of the orchestra, playing mostly on acoustic instruments, constantly morphs in and out of intense character roles.
The two principal characters are unnamed but designated as “Guy” and “Girl” in the script. Here performed by Ian Ferguson and Cora Grace Winstead, they encounter each other by chance in the busy swirl of a Dublin street; Girl, a Czech immigrant with an irrepressibly assertive personality, notices Guy’s impassioned singing and guitar playing, and correctly surmises that he is a person of great passion and quashed ambition. This chance meeting sets off a five-day adventure leading to the re-igniting of his dreams, and a lightning-quick, never-consummated love affair.
The role of Girl provides an outstanding virtuoso vehicle for Winstead, who personifies the relentless energy of a woman determined to see those around her achieve fulfillment; Winstead plays Girl with a flaming power that casts a glow on the entire drama. Ferguson delivers the somewhat heftier vocal demands of Guy with a gravelly roughness; his is not a beautiful voice, but one with a muscular hold on the lyrics. He easily personifies the combination of despair, frustration, and idealism of a vacuum-cleaner repairman with a compulsion to create music and poetry.
The most magical aspect of Once is the total integration of the score into the plotline. The songs—many of them first appearing on Hansard and Irglová’s 2006 debut album The Swell Season, which they eventually called their duo—are not additions nor comments, but are part of the plot, introduced as demonstration of music-making skill by the various musical characters. That all of this impressive cast of 12 are instrumentalists and singers as well is part of the joy and fascination of this play and this production.
Matthew Cook often steals the spotlight as Billy, the vehemently Irish music shop owner at odds with the world, while Alex Branton steps out of the orchestra/chorus to play a smarmy bureaucratic banker who turns out to have a heart and musical ambitions of his own. Equally impressive, Katrina Kratzer delivers a soaring Irish fiddle performance and then sets aside her fiddle playing to bring sympathy and tenderness to the voice of Guy’s ex-Girlfriend in New York.
Designer DeVries’ simple, unobtrusive sets provide a perfect backdrop to the emotional complexity of Once, while Korey Kent’s pointedly unfashionable everyday costumes underline the working-class dilemmas of the characters. Within this minimal setting, director Galloway delivers a smooth flow to the action while allowing an exaggerated intensity in the acting, reflecting the diversity and energy of this modern urban European setting. Meanwhile, under the direction of Scott A. Eckert, the musical performances are exuberant and precise—no small accomplishment considering the absence of a conductor and the spacing of the performers. Near the end, the unaccompanied chorus reprise of “Gold” provides a magical, shiver-producing climax, and the use of acoustic instruments throughout created a rare beauty of orchestral tone throughout the production.
Ultimately, Once delvers the well-worn optimistic message of following a dream; at the same time it keeps hold of some harsh realities. It all melds together in a show and a production that follows the greatest theatrical tradition of touching the emotions while entertaining in an impressively innovative manner.
» Read our interview with music director Scott Eckert