Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Chicago

Writers Theatre
Review by Christine M. Malcom

Elleon Dobias, Bethany Thomas, Lucas Looch
Johnson, Viva Boresi, Dana Saleh Omar, Liam Oh,
Jordan Golding, Matt Deitchman, Matt Mueller, and
Ron E. Rains

Photo by Michael Brosilow
Writers Theatre continues its 2022-2023 season with its first musical since 2019. The company's version of Once, directed and choreographed by Katie Spelman with music direction by Matt Deitchman, has generated enough buzz that its run was extended even before opening night. The production, which beautifully captures the show's quiet power, definitely warrants the hype.

The intimacy of Nichols Theatre, where the audience rises up from the stage on three sides, is particularly well-suited to the play's settings, which include crowded two-room flats, struggling small businesses, and ultimately, a 24-hour lock-in at a recording studio. Joonhee Park's scenic design deploys mismatched, dated, down-at-heel furniture around the entirety of the set, positioning actors in rattan bucket chairs at the ends of aisles; combined with the tightly effective lighting design by Yael Lubetzky, this creates the sense that the entire cast is witnessing (and ignoring) the waves of grief and triumph each of the characters is experiencing. In the moments when Girl and Guy escape to the cliffs above Dublin, Park and Lubetzky inject yet another love story into the show–one to the city itself–as the characters simply stand on chairs in the pool of a tight spot at the center of the stage with a beautiful scatter of pinpoint lights behind them.

Gregory Graham's subtle costume design also contributes to the strong sense of intimate community. Without devolving into stereotype, the vibrant colors and patterns the Czech characters wear, as well as the closer fit and more revealing cut of their costume pieces, contrast with the baggy, muted tweeds and knitwear of the Irish characters. The fact that there are almost no costume changes, other than the addition or removal of pieces here and there, underscores that the ensemble members are individuals who encounter Girl and Guy in various context throughout the city.

The sound design by Christopher M. Laporte and Sarah Ramos deserves special mention. The nine cast members, other than Girl and Guy, freely swap instruments throughout the show. Everything is wireless. This is critical to Spelman's mesmerizing choreography, which captures the swaying bodies of Dubliners on city buses and the way music captivates and calls them to into movement. There is not a single instance where the wrong instrument or voice is brought to the foreground or the mix feels off. The artistry of the sound design culminates in the beautiful a cappella reprise of "Gold" late in the show.

Trying to describe the plot and characters makes it clear how easily a production might lapse into tired clich├ęs dear to the early twenty-first century when John Carney's movie was released. In her careful attention to the many, many love stories that run through the heart of Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová's music and lyrics, as well as Enda Walsh's book, Spelman and Deitchman lift this production well clear of this danger.

Dana Saleh Omar is no manic pixie dream girl who simply exists to propel Guy on his journey. Omar's portrayal of Girl's insistence on acts of love and devotion, large and small, come across as rooted in her experiences of grief, yet fiercely and honestly celebratory. Certainly her chemistry with Matt Mueller's Guy is arresting, as it must be, but her moments with her mother Baruska (Bethany Thomas) and her roommates, particularly Elisa Carlson's hilariously deadpan yet slinky and sensual Reza, linger in the mind and heart.

Matt Mueller's Guy is fully realized in quite similar ways. There's a danger that the character's attraction to Girl might proceed in jagged, jarring steps, yet Mueller establishes just how dark a place the character is in, beginning with the opening number that ends with him trying to abandon his guitar. He ties his first, awkward pass at Girl to his subsequent apology in the showroom of Billy's music store with an emotional through-line that conveys a yearning that is both general and specific to Girl.

This scene works so well in no small part because of the humor ably injected by Matt Edmonds (Billy) and his karate moves. Here, Spelman's commitment to seamlessly integrating deep emotion and humor take what could easily become so much masculine posturing and transforms the interaction into something human and revealing of all three characters.

Deitchman's arrangements for both Girl and Guy emphasize the low end of Omar and Mueller's ranges. There are moments where it's clear this challenges the two, but those challenges read as deliberate and necessary to giving the songs a rich emotional texture.

In the supporting cast, Liam Oh (Andrej), Lucas Looch Johnson (Svec), and Yuchi Chiu (Bank Manager) all clearly delight in bringing both the high drama and the broad humor as well they might as they are all so very good at it. Thomas (Baruska), Ron E. Rains (Da), Deitchman (Eamon), and Elleon Tobias (Ex-Girlfriend) all create small, beautiful moments that are also important to steering the show clear of clichés.

Once runs through April 2, 2023, at Writers Theatre, Alexandra C. and John D. Nichols Theatre, 325 Tudor Court, Glencoe IL. For tickets and information, please visit or call 847-242-6000.