Regional Reviews: Philadelphia
Once begins just as Guy (an endearing but sulky Ken Allen Neely) is giving up his amateur music career. After busking one last brokenhearted ballad, he leaves his guitar on the street and walks off. Enter Girl (Katherine Fried is enchanting), who keenly observes that Guy is pining for a lost love and in dire need of some encouragement. They are polar opposites in many waysintroverted v. extroverted, optimistic v. pessimistic, Irish v. Czechbut they come together over their passion for music. The unlikely pair decide to record a demo. Only problem is they have less than a week to pull everything together. Yes, they do fall in love, but after dabbling in the standard romantic comedy tropes, the story takes a decidedly original turn in act two.
Along the way a bevy of fascinating minor characters weave their own stories of heartbreak and song through the main narrative. In my favorite subplot, Billy (the always wonderful Scott Greer) and the Bank Manager (Charlie DelMarcelle is utterly adorable) let the experience of playing together turn their fiery hatred into friendship. That transition is imbued with such delight and authenticity, it makes you want to cheer. In the end, Once is as much about the joy of music and its ability to bring people together as it is about Girl and Guy's particular relationship.
Director Terrence J. Nolen is at the top of his game: utilizing the F. Otto Haas Stage to the utmost, bringing out excellent performances from every member of the remarkable ensemble, and elevating the respectable score with masterful staging and authentic emotion. To say that the show is staged in the round is an accurate understatement. Yes, the audience is seated all around the stage, but the actors also work behind and between, singing from the aisles and a speaking from a raised runway that surrounds the theater. Fluid choreographyit seems like the ensemble is slowly but constantly rearranging themselvesgives the ensemble an opportunity to to connect with each other and the audience.
With a stream of increasingly extreme and intense entertainment vying for our attention, there is something exquisite about the quiet appeal of Once. A blissful celebration of music and an earnest ode to love, it may be slow at times (particularly in the first act), but the marvelous production casts such a pleasant spell you probably won't care.
Once is and runs through October 28th at the Arden Theatre Company's F. Otto Haas Stage, 40 N. 2nd Street, Old City Philadelphia PA. For tickets call 215-922-1122 or visit www.ardentheatre.org.