Written on October 23rd, 2017

A Sad Love Story Sweetened with Song

The show, Once, is not a musical: it’s actually a play that includes music. But the music is woven throughout this heartwarming story, making this show such a wonderful experience.  Now on stage at London’s Grand Theatre, Once involves the audience, and then gives them a look into the hearts of two people in a bittersweet love story.

On arrival at the theatre, audience members are welcome to go to the Irish pub that fills the stage and order a drink.  As they enjoy their drink, live entertainment begins to fill the pub: talented actors/musicians with guitars, fiddles, even an accordion fill the theatre with music.  Then patrons take their seats, the lights dim, while the music continues. 

The set consists of the bar at center stage with chairs lining both sides. If cast members are not in the scene, they step to the side and sit down.  They serve as the orchestra from the sidelines, stepping forward as they are needed in the action.

Once is the story of a talented, young Irish performer – Guy – who plays guitar and sings songs he writes himself. Most of the songs are written for his girlfriend, but she has left him to move to New York.  Discouraged by that loss and assuming he can never make a living at music, he decides to give up singing.  He is very depressed, thinking he is trapped in a future of repairing vacuum cleaners in his father’s shop.

In walks Girl – she immediately recognizes his depression, and sees that he has talent, as he sings what he believes to be his final song. She is an aggressive Czech immigrant who coerces him into fixing her Hoover.  “It doesn’t suck,” she says gravely.  She also convinces him to borrow the money to record his songs, and then go to New York to catch up with his girlfriend and make his living in music. She tells him “I’m always serious, I’m Czech.”  But he is falling in love with her, even though she tells him that she has a husband and a child.  The husband has left her, returning to the Czech Republic, and her family members point out that he didn’t treat her well.  But she remains loyal to him.  Nevertheless, it is obvious she is attracted to Guy.

Although the show is presented completely in English, we hear the Irish accents and the Irish terms, such as Da for Dad.  The Czech immigrants also have strong accents, but speak in English.  When they are talking among themselves, where they would normally be speaking Czech, they continue to speak English, but the Czech translation appears on an overhead screen to remind the audience they are speaking Czech.  Occasionally they speak in Czech with English overhead.  (Spoiler alert -)  At one point, Guy asks Girl if she still loves her husband.  Girl softly tells Guy that she loves him, in Czech.  The audience gasps when the words “I love you” appear overhead.  He asks what that means, and she says, “It looks like rain.”  The language used adds a special dimension to the love story.

Jeremy Walmsley is excellent as Guy. He draws us in, first with his unhappiness, and then with the rebuilding of his confidence.  Walmsley sings the folk songs perfectly, accompanying himself on the guitar.

Amanda LeBlanc, as the stoic Czech Girl, creates some of the humour with her bluntness.  She, too, sings the songs perfectly, while playing the piano.  Together Walmsley and LeBlanc give their all to the hauntingly beautiful “Falling Slowly”, which took the Academy Award for best original song in 2007 when it came out in the movie version of Once.

Daniel Williston as Billy, the owner of the music shop, also provides comedy with his disdain of bankers. He is a good foil for Jeff Hamacher who plays the banker.  Hamacher’s skills as a musician shine, especially when he’s playing the cello.  Alicia Toner is excellent playing the violin, and also in the role of the sexy Czech Reza.  Little Zoe Brown is a delight as Girl’s child. The entire cast shows brilliant talent, all playing instruments.  The music is carefully integrated into the plot, and delivers the sadness and joy of the simple story.

One can see why this heartfelt show has been well received.  On Broadway, Once received eleven 2012 Tony Award nominations, and won eight including Best Musical, Best Actor and Best Book.

In the Grand’s production, Director Tracey Flye has created the warmth of a friendly Irish pub, and has given us a glimpse inside the weary lives of these Dubliners for just a few days.  It feels very authentic, and despite the bittersweet conclusion for Girl and Guy, we are hopeful for their futures.  Perhaps the universe is unfolding as it should.

Once continues at the Grand Theatre, London until November 5.  Tickets are available at the Grand box office at 672-8800 or 1-800-265-1593 or visit www.grandtheatre.com.

Photo: Jeremy Walmsley as Guy, Alicia Toner as Reza, and Amanda LeBlanc as Girl. Photo by Claus Andersen.

Book by Edna Walsh
Music and Lyrics by Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova
Based on the movie written and directed by John Carney
Directed and Choreographed by Tracey Flye
Musical Direction by Joseph Tritt
Performed by Jeremy Walmsley, Amanda LeBlanc, Daniel Williston, et al.
Produced by the Grand Theatre and the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre
Grand Theatre, London
October 20, extended to November 5, 2017
Reviewed by Mary Alderson
Disclaimer:  The reviewer’s son was Assistant to the Director of this production.

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