Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
In Enda Walsh's book, the unnamed Guy and Girl meet by chance when he is strumming his guitar and singing a mournful song he composed for the girl who left him, and hoping to score some tips in his open guitar case. By day he works in his father's vacuum cleaner repair shop, and lives with his Da in the apartment upstairs. The girl, an immigrant from the Czech Republic, is also a composer. She plays on the piano in a music shop whose proprietor has a strong crush on her. She lives with her young daughter, mother, and their eccentric borders, all fellow Czechs. Over the course of just a few days Guy and Girl change each other's lives and enable each other to face what lies ahead for them.
Once is based on the 2007 low-budget Irish surprise hit film of the same name. The film spawned a top-selling soundtrack album and Oscar winning best original song, "Falling Softly." Latté Da is giving Once its first Twin Cities-born production. The stage musical was seen here several years ago when the national touring company played the State Theatre in Minneapolis. That production was first rate entertainment, its score, played with élan, its moving narrative intact. However, even from a near-front row seat, the vast expanse of the 2128 seat State diminished the immediacy and the emotional impact the film had claimed. The Broadway production was staged at the mid-sized Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre, after a regional and an Off-Broadway run, no doubt offering a very different experience. My feeling about the touring production was that I'd seen a well-rendered facsimile of the original with all the lovely parts in place, and was grateful for that, but I missed the feeling of my heart being levitated.
This is not the case at the cozy Ritz. In addition to the intimacy of the space, Peter Rothstein directs the production as if each member of the audience had been personally invited to show up. The full-hearted manner in which the actors inhabit their characters enable this Once to embrace the audience, openly delivering the rush of love, regret, restraint and urgency as they course through Guy and Girl's souls.
Once deviates from the accepted wisdom of musical theater that the songs should advance the story. Instead, these songs had, for the most part, been written by Guy or Girl in their solitude to express feelings that would otherwise be trapped, revealing the wishes and bruises they harbor beneath the surface of their fledgling relationship.
In a show that hinges on the transforming power of music, first honors in Latté Da's Once go to musical director Jason Hansen. Once is written to be performed by actors who are also the show's musicians, most of the cast members contributing on one or more instruments. Those who may not have a specific musical instrument in their repertoire provide percussion, slapping turned-over pails and wooden cube-shaped stools. Because the mix of instruments available will depend in part on the actors cast, Hansen had to work with the talent at hand to recreate the score's homespun yet deceptively complex music. They sound great playing together, and you are well advised to arrive early to enjoy splendid pre-show musical performances from this same crew, who look like they are having a blast.
Among the great joys of this production are the two leads. Ben Bakken, who last scored high marks singing and dancing in Latté Da's Five Points, portrays the role of Guy with such deep conviction, one would think the part must be autobiographical. He sings the challenging songs, with multi-octave trills, with a voice that can rise from the gravel tones of a tiger to the sweet tones of an angel, beautifully rendering the melody and meaning of every word. He depicts Guy's awkward vulnerability as well as the depth of longing within. As Girl, Britta Ollmann, who was gave a thrilling performance as Mother in Latté Da's Ragtime, sings beautifully, with full heart, hesitant at first, than losing herself in the music until it soars and fills the room. Ollman imbues Girl with spunky drive and confidence that hides the wound that she reveals, in spite of herself. Bakken and Ollman sing together in wonderful harmony, and the chemistry that grows between their characters is undeniable. They also have a solid handle on their characters' charming accents, his Irish, hers Czech.
All of the other cast members do first-rate work, singing, playing their instruments and creating characters that, though minor, are distinctive. Most notable is Reed Sigmund as Billy, the blustery music shop owner who lets Girl play the piano in his shop in the hopes of winning her favor. His role is the most comedic in the show, and Sigmund is a genius at both verbal and physical comedy, as in unwisely demonstrating his martial arts skills. Other standouts include Jay Albright as an accordion-playing bank manager, Martin L'Herault as Guy's tenderhearted Da, Silas Sellnow as a Czech fast-food worker who dreams of a rise to the top, and Suzanne Warmanen as Girl's earthy and effusive mother.
The setting, beautifully rendered by Michael Hoover, is a wood-paneled tavern, with built in benches and a balcony surrounding the space overhead, creating warmth and ease as if we are all, cast and audience, settled in for an evening of fellowship together. Matthew LaFebvre's costumes are perfect for each character, including the folksy skirts for the Czech-born Girl and her mother, Guy's working bloke attire, the hipster garb worn by the studio engineer (changed in this production from a male to a female role), and Billy's awkward attempt at thrift-shop punk. Grant E. Merges uses lighting to accentuate the subtle shifts in emotional tones, especially between internal musings conveyed in song and the exchanges between characters in the present. A star-lit scene overlooking Dublin at night is especially breathtaking. Kevin Springer has done wonderful work with the sound, including the many forms of percussion, from tambourine to foot-stomping in unison. The show's choreography by Kelli Foster captures the yearning of the music, more balletic than your typical show dancing, with a lively folk dance performed by Girl, her mother, and their lodgers, spicing things up.
When I saw Once as a film, I loved it. When I saw the national tour of the musical, I enjoyed it and appreciated the talent and artistry on stage, but did not feel it achieved anything more than the movie. Theater Latté Da's production of Once, left me elevated beyond the feelings I held for the film, as this telling of the story, with its immediacy and intimacy, delivers its message of heart, hope, and sacrifice anew, wrapped beautifully in music, movement and design. Go!
Once , through October 21, 2018, at the Ritz Theater, 345 13th Avenue NE, Minneapolis MN. Tickets: $26.00 - $51.00. Student and Educator Rush tickets, $15.00, cash only, maximum of two tickets per valid ID one hour before curtain, pending availability. For tickets call 612-339-3303 or go to latteda.org.
Book: Enda Walsh, based on the motion picture written and directed by John Carney; Music and Lyrics: Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová; Director: Peter Rothstein; Choreography: Kelli Foster Warder; Music Director: Jason Hansen; Scenic Design: Michael Hoover; Costume Design: Matthew LeFebvre; Lighting Design: Grant E. Merges; Sound Design: Kevin Springer; Properties Master: Abbee Warmboe; Dialect Coach: Foster Johns; Czech Translations: Klára Moldová; Technical Director: Bethany Reinfeld; Stage Manager: Tiffany K. Orr; Assistant Director: Derek Prestly; Assistant Stage Manager: April Harding.
Cast: Jay Albright (Bank Manager/accordion/piano), Ben Bakken (Guy/guitar), Francesca Dawis (Ex-Girlfriend/violin), Jason Hansen (guitar/mandolin/piano/drums), Martin L'Herault (Da/guitar/ukulele), Molly Sue McDonald (Studio Engineer/guitar/violin/bass), Britta Ollmann (Girl/piano), Antonia Perez (Reza/percussion), Dan Piering (Svec/guitar/drums/bass), Silas Sellnow (Andrej/violin/mandolin/ melodica), Reed Sigmund (Billy/percussion), Suzanne Warmanen (Barushka/percussion).