“Once” has always been touched with magic.
And as anyone who has seen the sublime new production of the show by Actors’ Playhouse in Coral Gables would tell you, the musical’s spellbinding pull is as powerful as ever.
When Irish director-screenwriter John Carney first told the tale of a heartbroken Irish street musician and the spunky Czech pianist who reignites his passion, a 2007 movie made in 17 days on a miniscule $150,000 budget grossed more than $20 million. It became a cult hit and won its composer-stars, Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová, the Oscar for their haunting song “Falling Slowly.”
Reinvented as a stage musical by Hansard and Irglová, Irish playwright Enda Walsh, director John Tiffany and his movement collaborator Steven Hoggett, the 2012 Broadway version of “Once” won eight Tony Awards, including the coveted best musical prize. The show had two national tours (playing Miami’s Arsht Center in 2014 and the Broward Center in 2015) and has had multiple international productions.
The great news for fans of musical theater in general and “Once” in particular is that the Actors’ Playhouse regional production is just as enchanting, bittersweet and impressively performed as those made-in-Manhattan versions of the show. Staged by artistic director David Arisco, with choreography and musical staging by Jeni Hacker, “Once” easily claims its place among the finest productions in the company’s 30-year history.
The cast, a blend of artists who have done the show on Broadway, at other regional theaters and new-to-the-show actors, is made up of performers who are necessarily quadruple threats: They sing, they dance, they act, and they serve as the show’s onstage orchestra — some playing four or five different instruments.
The central figures in this star-crossed romance are known only as Guy (Ben Hope) and Girl (Elizabeth Nestlerode). He’s a singer-songwriter whose adored girlfriend cheated on him and ran off to New York with the other guy. She’s a Czech expat living in Dublin with her mom, young daughter and other friends, a talented pianist whose romantic situation is complicated. Once their lives intersect, they begin falling for each other, as he recommits to his music thanks to her steadfast encouragement. But again, it’s complicated.
With cast member Ryan McCurdy serving as musical director, the Hansard-Irglová score is rousingly, beautifully performed. So are the gorgeously blended vocals — just listen to the shimmering a capella version of “Gold” in the second act. The stylistically varied songs in “Once” are brimming with longing, anger, heartache and tenderness.
Jodi Dellaventura’s inviting Dublin pub set is just that: Before the show, audience members so inclined can go onstage to have a drink with the actors, who then perform a few songs not from the show as theatergoers take their seats. Hope’s Guy comes out, launches into the blistering “Leave” as the house lights go dark, and “Once” is underway.
The show feels uncommonly fluid and organic. And though Arisco and lighting designer Eric Nelson keep the focus exactly where it should be moment-to-moment, Hacker’s work strikingly combines stillness with movement both subtle and bold.
Shaun Mitchell keeps the sound clean and clear — not easy when the singer-musicians are so constantly on the move — and costume designer Ellis Tillman helps illuminate personalities through his clothing choices, such as a track suit for over-caffeinated drummer Švec (Cody Craven); a Hawaiian shirt for music store owner Billy (Chris Blisset), a guy with an outsized personality and his own hankering for Girl; and a miniskirt, low-cut tops and fishnets for Girl’s boldly sexy roommate Réza (Anna Lise Jensen).
The handsome Hope, one of the actors who played Guy on Broadway, has an enticing rock-theater voice imbued with longing. He speaks in a lilting but not overdone Irish accent (all the more impressive if you know he grew up in Birmingham, Alabama), and the way he plays Guy fills his scenes with Girl with tenderness and romantic tension.
Nestlerode, a University of Miami grad who recently played Girl at Sarasota’s Florida Studio Theater, makes the audience fall in love with her character just as quickly as Guy does. She’s quirky, funny, blunt and an exquisite singer (and pianist) whose voice blends beautifully with Hope’s, turning “Falling Slowly” into an emotionally captivating experience.
Each of the cast members shines in myriad ways while contributing to the strong sound of the onstage “Once” community.
Jensen, most recently the impressive Italian-American female lead in Slow Burn’s “The Bridges of Madison County,” here plays an enticing Czech woman who can sing, dance and play the violin simultaneously. Stephen G. Anthony, as the ambitious fast food worker Andrej, navigates from comedy to crushing disappointment while playing the acoustic bass, electric bass, guitar and ukulele.
Craven is a wild man as Švec, while Blisset brings both comedy and compassion to Billy. Joanne Borts, a “Once” Broadway understudy, is sensibly supportive as Girl’s mother Baruška. Margaret Dudasik is a willowy beauty as Guy’s unreliable Ex-Girlfriend.
Michael Friedman, a young South Florida actor, singer, pianist and musical director, plays the pub’s emcee while taking turns playing guitar, percussion and piano. Adreina Kasper is tough, then hilarious as the Bank Manager whose cello playing is far superior to her singing.
Barry J. Tarallo, who turns his gorgeous tenor voice to a pre-show version of the Irish classic “On Raglan Road,” brings warmth to the role of Guy’s supportive Da. Abbey Del Corral and María Diaz alternate in the role of Girl’s sweet daughter Ivanka.
Musical director McCurdy, who also plays the recording engineer Eamon, has a particularly telling moment when he emerges from the control room after hearing the band’s blistering rendition of the first of Guy’s songs. He had gone into the room a doubter, annoyed at having to work for 24 hours with a rag-tag bunch of unproven talent. He reenters nearly speechless, blown away by what he’s heard.
We share the feeling.
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If you go
▪ What: “Once” by Glen Hansard, Markéta Irglová and Enda Walsh.
▪ Where: Actors’ Playhouse at the Miracle Theatre, 280 Miracle Mile, Coral Gables.
▪ When: 8 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday, 3 p.m. Sunday, through March 25 (additional matinee 2 p.m. March 7).
▪ Cost: $64 Friday-Saturday, $57 other performances (10 percent senior discount Wednesday-Thursday, $15 student rush tickets 15 minutes before curtain, based on availability).
▪ Information: 305-444-9293 or www.actorsplayhouse.org.