Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Phoenix

Spotlight Youth Theatre
Review by Gil Benbrook

Also see Gil's recent reviews of Constellations, Dead Man's Cell Phone, The Lifespan of a Fact and Misery

Braiden Lee and Zoey Waller
Photo by Robert Waller
The musical Once, which is based on the Oscar-winning film of the same name, is an unconventional love story about a guy and a girl who meet on the streets of Dublin. It's a simple show with a simple plot; with a talented cast of teens and a few adults who play the older characters, Spotlight Youth Theatre's production proves to be an inspiring and extremely moving theatrical experience as all of the cast members not only act and sing but also proficiently play an assortment of musical instruments.

The story focuses on a man and a woman, simply called Guy and Girl, who are somewhat lost in their lives and dealing with relationship issues. He's Irish, lives with his father, and repairs vacuum cleaners in his father's shop, and he is heartbroken and angry because his girlfriend moved away to New York, leaving him feeling worthless and lost. She's from the Czech Republic and living in Dublin with her mother, young daughter, and some fellow Czechs but is estranged from her husband. Guy and Girl are also both musicians–he plays the guitar and she the piano–and find a connection with each other through songs Guy has written that bring out feelings they've both long forgotten.

The plot takes place over a period of just a few days and begins when they meet somewhat unexpectedly on the street, after she hears a rough demo tape of some of his original songs and urges him to find a way to make a professional recording of his music.

The musical follows the plot of the film screenplay by John Carney fairly closely, with the book by Enda Walsh expanded slightly to provide some added layers for the two lead roles while also slightly fleshing out the supporting characters. Walsh's book also adds in moments of humor as well as some effective short scenes that help connect the musical numbers written by Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová, who also starred in the movie as Guy and Girl, including the Oscar-winning song "Falling Slowly." There are also a few new songs the duo wrote for the stage version. Almost every song helps to flesh out the inner feelings and raw emotions of the two main characters.

Director Kenny Grossman incorporates the same theatrical device used on Broadway, where the cast of 12 also play instruments to form the musical accompaniment for the songs in the show. This not only creates an authentic soundscape, since the characters they play are all musicians who come together to record songs, but it also provides an excellent vehicle for each cast member to display their musical abilities. The fact that eight of the 12 cast members are teenagers who, in addition to creating believable characters with expert line deliveries and facial expressions, also are excellent musicians elevates this production above others I've seen, making it more emotional rewarding. The intimate Spotlight venue provides a deep connection between the audience, the cast and the characters they play and the story they tell, even more so then when I saw this on Broadway.

Braiden Lee and Zoey Waller are excellent as Guy and Girl. Lee's pained expressions and downtrodden eyes immediately make you understand how lost and depressed Guy is and when Lee opens their mouth to sing their first song, they elicit a wail of anguish that perfectly depicts the pain and torment Guy is feeling. Waller is just as good as the determined Girl, with a strong portrayal that includes a rich sense of connection to those around her and layers of warmth along with sharp comic timing that perfectly gets the wit and humor in her lines. Her solo of "The Hill" is incredibly moving. Both Lee and Waller's accents are fairly good and consistent throughout, and their abilities on the guitar and piano, respectively, are strong.

The small ensemble cast all do wonderful work: Eeshan Kumar is humorous and amiable as Billy, the owner of the piano shop where Girl often goes to play; Corban Adams and Nicolas Viquesney are hilarious as two of Girl's roommates; and Amber Suding shines as Reza, another roommate who is powerful and knows how to get what she wants. Bryn Gibson and Olivia Martinez are very good in two small scenes: Gibson as Guy's ex-girlfriend; and Martinez as Eamon, who works at the recording studio. Kacie Snyder is endearing as Ivanka, Girl's daughter. The three adults in the cast include Ken Goodenberger, who does a beautiful job as Da, Guy's father; Christina Clodt, who is very effective as Baruska, Girl's mother; and Todd Corbeil, who is wonderful as the Bank Manager.

The creative elements are excellent, including Rob Adams' realistic set design that depicts the store fronts on a street in Dublin and Josh Hontz' perfect lighting and sound design that feature rich colors and shadows and clear and crisp sound, allowing every vocal and musical note to be heard. Katie Czajkowski's choreography uses simple movements to create several moving stage images, and the costumes by Samantha Utpadel are character perfect.

Once is a musical with a great yet simple story about two identifiable, realistic and endearing characters, with a score that is chock full of songs that are sublime. Seeing a talented cast in Spotlight's production, including eight teens who can not only sing and create believable characters but who also skillfully play various musical instruments while doing so, moved me even more than the other times I've seen this show. It's a beautiful production of a beautiful musical.

Once runs through February 5, 2023, at Spotlight Youth Theatre, 10620 N 43rd Avenue, Glendale AZ. For tickets and information, please visit or call 602-843-8318

Director: Kenny Grossman
Assistant Director: Alec Pursell
Musical Direction: Elisa W. Kurbat
Choreography: Katie Czajkowski
Set Design: Rob Adams
Costume Design: Samantha Utpadel
Lighting & Sound Design: Josh Hontz
Hair & Makeup Design: Falin Ossipinsky Properties: Vickie Grossman and Kenny Grossman

Guy: Braiden Lee
Girl: Zoey Waller
Billy: Eeshan Kumar
Ex-Girlfriend: Bryn Gibson
Svec: Corban Adams
Andrej: Nicolas Viquesney
Reza: Amber Suding
Bank Manager: Todd Corbeil
Emcee / Eamon: Olivia Martinez
Baruska: Christina Clodt
Da: Ken Goodenberger
Ivanka: Kacie Snyder