Courtesy of The Croswell Opera House
The Croswell Opera House has assembled a talented batch of individuals to help bring “Once” - based on the Oscar winning film by John Carney - to their stage (one of the first community theatres to do so). This isn’t the normal tier of what a “standard” Broadway musical is, “Once” does not follow the typical conventions of a flashy musical. Teaching the audience that life is random and unfair does not exactly make for the feel-good musical of the year, but the story of Guy (Jonathan Crayne) and Girl (Ruth Jansen) he Irish, and her Czech, slowly gravitating towards the other has a sweetness to it.
There are plenty of romantic musicals in the Broadway canon, but “Once” has a unique and elegant touch of intimacy, and stakes claim to a smaller group of musicals that are realistically wise about the joy and anguish of life and love. This impactful realism leaves the theatre goers mind spinning with new ideas and feelings, and perhaps even a new perspective on their priorities. Love is offered in many stages here, the show’s book, put together by terrific Irish playwright Enda Walsh with earnestly soothing music and lyrics by Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova, is centered on one couple who meet on the streets of Dublin (Crayne and Jansen).
Guy is a street guitarist emotionally blocked from society because of his lack of success and the woman he wrote most of his songs about left him. While Girl is a Czech immigrant with a more optimistic world-view, a single mother trying to raise her daughter and work through her own emotional pain by taking on various projects and helping someone else realize his potential. Basically, the central love story is suggesting that life, as it appears on the edge of love, is the only life that can be beautiful. Surrounded by 10 actor-musicians - all set in the middle of an onstage Dublin bar - and featuring a simple, folk infused score that feels refreshing in comparison to the preppy tunes accustomed to most Broadway adaptations, this production is quietly profound.
Equipped with their own instruments (ranging from guitars to violins to harmonica) - each supporting character is called upon at some point to offer a soothing ballad or help transition to the next scene. Most of it is smooth, and when this company starts mashing together and singing in tandem, it’s a force to be reckoned with.
Pete Stewart and Crosby Slupe score big laughs as Billy, the frugal and persnickety music shop owner with a back problem and knack for karate, and Andrej, Girl’s impassioned sibling who learns English from cheesy soap operas. In addition, John Bacarella is graced with a few touching moments playing Guy’s father Da, Jamie Buechele offers the sexy manipulator Reza, Orlando Finelli’s quirky Bank Manager (who just wants to perform!), the adorable Ava Snyder playing Girl’s younger daughter Ivanka, and Jimmy Stewart as the huggable teddy bear (and drummer) Svec.
The whole cast shines in one moment or another when Crayne and Jansen aren’t singing with impassioned versatility. Doug Miller, who both directed and designed this tale, continues to dazzle with his distinct attention to detail (right down to cleaning supplies in the custodian’s closet). Several small and minor specs that could easily have been overlooked flourish masterfully under his eye. Though some of the lightning miscues were noticeable, Slupe (doubling as the light designer) manages to find the right balance in most instances. However, during the ballad “When Your Mind’s Made Up” this caused a struggled to see emotions in actors faces.
Granted, this is a tough show with a vigorous demand for deft musicality and quick adaptability, but my biggest issue was the lack of consistency in the accent work. For the most part all the performers usually landed their mark (either Czech or rocking the Irish brogue) but at times it felt like actors would forget their accent during certain numbers, and then all of a sudden it would come rushing back. While this does not change the message or heart of “Once,” and when you consider how quickly the show was put together, the passion is still commendable, it leaves me wishing to see some moments more polished.
Seeing as how the actors double as musicians on stage too, Dave Rains and his tiny five-piece orchestra leave most of the heavy lifting to the performers, though Rains and his crew subtlety amplify each tune. Both the actors and the orchestra must be in exact sync or the songs will never work or flow the correct way, and to be honest, I didn’t realize there was a pit until act two, that’s how seamless it all feels.
In the traditional sense, “Once” is not average, and whether Lenawee County and other surrounding areas will take to the show is an open question (though, judging by the standing ovation on Saturday night, the crowd seemed invested). The music - although beautiful - does not come with the caveat of usual tricks. There is neither digital scenery nor spectacle and above all else, especially in the song “Gold” - “Once” is a musical that mainly just wants its audience to listen.
IF YOU GO:
“Once” continues through Sunday April 28th at The Croswell Opera House. You can visit Croswell.org to purchase tickets and see curtain times!