Reviewed by Katie Buenneke
South Coast Repertory
Through September 30
Mounting the first regional production of a show that recently played on Broadway puts the creative team between a rock and a hard place: Is it better to do a new take on the material, or is it better to emulate the original production?
With Once, playing at the South Coast Rep through the end of the month, director Kent Nicholson decidedly opted for the latter route. Every element of the production, from the sets to the staging, choreography and costumes, is reminiscent of the off-Broadway, Broadway, and national tour productions, which were directed by John Tiffany. It’s not a bad thing — Tiffany’s direction was stunning, and part of why the show won the Tony for Best Musical in 2012 (Tiffany also won for Best Direction). But as strong as the production is (and it is quite strong), it feels like it never steps out of the shadow of its predecessor.
Nicholson has great material to work with: Enda Walsh’s effective book is equally good at quips and character development, while the songs (by John Carney and Marketa Irglova) sound delightfully lush as orchestrated by Martin Lowe, and led by music director Andy Taylor (a performer from the Broadway cast pulling double duty in Costa Mesa).
Based on the 2007 movie of the same name, the show’s story is bare but beautiful: A brokenhearted guy (Rustin Cole Sailors) in Dublin is about to give up on music when he meets a girl (Amanda Leigh Jerry) who loves his songs. They have a deep connection, both musically (he plays guitar, and she’s a pianist) and emotionally, but he still technically has a girlfriend who’s in America, and she’s still technically married to a man who lives in Czechia. They work together with some of their friends to record his music, and learn more about each other in the process.
The ensemble is quite talented — as actors, singers, and instrumentalists. Each cast member plays at least one instrument, and they collectively act as the orchestra. The overall energy was a bit low at the matinee this reviewer attended, but Nicholas Mongiardo-Cooper is a standout as Billy, the owner of a music shop who’s besotted with Jerry’s character, and gives a delightfully enervating comedic performance. Unfortunately, Sailors and Jerry feel slightly miscast as the leads — Sailors underplayed his role to the point of barely emoting, and at times felt more glam rock than folksy, while Jerry, a recent college grad reads too young (through no fault of her own) to be the mother of a high school-aged daughter.
But those are minor quibbles; the real star of the show is the show itself. It’s a heartbreaking story, beautifully told. Because all the music is diegetic (i.e., the characters are musicians, and the songs function as performances anyone can hear, rather than as internal monologues), it should appeal to even the most avowed musical hater.
South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Dr., Costa Mesa; Tues.-Thur., 7:30 p.m.; Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2:30 p.m. and 8 p.m.; Sun., 2:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m.; through Sep 30. www.scr.org. Running time: two hours and 15 minutes with a 20-minute intermission.