The critically acclaimed 2007 Irish indie film by John Carney that was faithfully adapted by Enda Walsh to the stage and swept 8 Tony Awards in 2012 (including Best Musical and Best Book) has found an idyllic new setting at the Segal Centre for Performing Arts this October. Opening the flagship English theatre company’s 2018-19 artistic season is an international hit musical, here making its grand Montreal premiere under the direction of Andrew Shaver.
“Once” is the unconventional love story of Guy (Greg Halpin) and Girl (Eva Foote): he’s an Irish guitar-strumming busker and a vacuum-cleaner repairman at his father’s shop who’s about give up on his musical dreams; she’s a piano-playing Czech immigrant who is pals with a motley group of fellow musicians from a local pub and music store. Guy meets Girl on the streets of Dublin as he’s leaving his guitar behind for good and she, instantly recognizing something special in his talent, intervenes with gutsy implacability to lift the dispirited Guy and his music off the sheet.
There are thorny barriers to the budding romance between the struggling artists, though; Guy is still hung up on an ex-girlfriend who has moved to New York, while Girl has a complicated history with an estranged husband and a child. And what will happen to the pair’s relationship is not necessarily what you’d expect. As the two form a unique bond, there is a hopeful sadness that permeates in their abiding tension between longing and consummation. It’s less a love story, perhaps, and more a story about love – namely, a profound love for music.
Indeed, the primary appeal of “Once” comes from the dulcet score by Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová, who also starred in the original motion picture. “Falling Slowly“, the lush folk-rock ballad that won the songwriting duo an Oscar in 2008, is the distinguishable hit, but there are at least half a dozen other exquisitely moving tunes here performed by the multitalented cast of 14 – who also serve as live orchestra.
Under the masterful direction of Andrew Shaver and musical direction of David Terriault, a committed and cohesive ensemble of quadruple threats act, sing, dance, and play among themselves a total of 17 instruments (as well as an array of changing characters). Served by the sound design of Brian Kenny, the full company numbers are among the highlights of the evening, particularly the moving Act 1 closer “Gold” – which is also where choreographer Annie St-Pierre’s work is best featured.
Having seen the original show when it first transferred to the Great White Way in 2012, “Once” felt revolutionary when I first experienced it. Soft-spoken, simple, and novel in its conductorless actor-musician composition, it was a modest and refreshing departure from the big, bloated Broadway spectacle. (Mind you, there’s no onstage Irish bar in this variant, but drinks and a lively musical pre-show in the lobby still make for an inviting welcome upon arrival at the venue). This poetic production proves at “once” to be of a captivating artisanal charm, preserving the rustic warmth of its Broadway counterpart while still finding its own, unique aesthetic.
Specifically, this “Once” has a decidedly more modern “recording studio” look and feel than its predecessor, as most accentuated by the showmanship quality of Martin Sirois’s dazzling lighting effects (I’m entranced by the generous strips of marquee lights) and Ken Mackenzie’s beautifully lacquered and streamlined set design. VideoCompany has also provided for projections in the production to help identify location, and they are delicately integrated and non-obtrusive. Amy Keith’s costumes are perhaps the most crucial design element in grounding the piece in working class Dublin, giving quirk and complexion to its whimsical characters.
Of the array of odd personages, the sweet-voiced Eva Foote as Girl is the unequivocal standout. Fully sincere, present, and disarming, she is arresting in both comedy and drama in balancing effervescent wit with soft vulnerability. It is a wholly enamouring performance of light and depth.
The recent National Theatre School of Canada graduate here makes her professional theatre debut at the Segal alongside Montreal musician Greg Halpin, who brings a raw quality and sound to the resigned and contained Guy – even if perhaps too internalized at times. Among, them, however, there is chemistry, and you believe their shared joys and heartbreaks.
Yes, it can be argued that “Once” is rather slow-moving, and it particularly wavers towards the latter part of the second act; but, akin to the best of warm, homecooked meals consumed in good company, it is flavourful and ultimately filling in its extended pleasure. It’s my second round and I’d still go for another (aye, even with the uneven accents here and there).
Streaked in minor-key undercurrents, the piece can also be compared to a communal meditation of sorts — in a manner beyond simple and idealistic matters of the romantic. Among its teachings is the acceptance of loneliness as an existential givens; endings are not tidy, fair, or idyllic.
“Once” strikes a human chord with its soaring melodies, artful staging, and a gut-wretchingly relatable story of life, loss, and love. Most notably, perhaps, it speaks and sings to the universal language of music, brightly highlighting its indisputable power to bring people together (and, in this case, ironically, apart). A first-rate production rivalling the award-winning Broadway version, this is foreseeably the musical must-see of the Montreal theatre season.
The Segal Centre for Performing Arts presents
Book by Enda Walsh
Music and Lyrics by Glen Hansard & Markéta Irglová
Based on the motion picture written and directed by John Carney
Directed by Andrew Shaver
Performances: October 7th – 28th, 2018
Venue: The Segal Centre’s Sylvan Adams Theatre
(5170 chemin de la Côte-Sainte-Catherine, Montreal, H3W 1M7)
Tickets: (514) 739.7944 | https://segalcentre.org/en/shows/2018-2019/once