Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Jose/Silicon Valley

Hillbarn Theatre & Conservatory
Review by Eddie Reynolds

Kaylee Miltersen and Jake Gale
Photo by Tracy Martin
For over fifty-five years of its eighty-three-year history, Hillbarn Theatre has performed in its highly versatile and intimate black box setting, transforming close-at-hand audiences to locations wonderful, wild and whimsical. As the audience enters the theater during the company's current production, eleven patrons of an Irish pub are playing everything from various-sized guitars, cello, and violins to accordion, hand-drum and tambourine while singing in the brogue and style of the Emerald Isle. Unable to avoid tapping our feet and rhythmically nodding along, we are tempted to step into the Irish pub to join in the foray of singing, foot-stomping, and swaying/swinging bodies.

But we have only seen and heard a sample of the richly evocative, soul-searching, emotionally charged music that Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová wrote for their 2012, eight-Tony-Award-winning musical, Once. Even more, we have not yet become immersed in the story by Enda Walsh (based on the 2007 movie by John Carney) that overflows with life-driving, life-changing passions for music, for love lost and found, and for a sense of self-fulfillment. Hillbarn Theatre & Conservatory once again proves its well-deserved reputation as a masterful producer of first-rate, crowd-pleasing, and long-to-be-remembered musicals with a Once, which immediately grabs the heartstrings of the audience and does not let go until the final chord fades.

We first meet a guitar-strumming street performer who sings of his hurt and regret of a love lost. With a voice that cries softly its sung tears before seamlessly leaping into spine-chilling wails at the top of the musical scale, the busker only identified as "Guy" pleads to some former love, "Leave, leave, let go of my hand."

As he walks away, abandoning his guitar on the street, a young woman we will know only as "Girl" calls out to him from among the audience and rushes down the aisle with resolute resolve to insist that he not give up his music even though he mutters to her, "There's no point to it anymore." With her cheerful curiosity and unrelenting interest in him and his obvious talent, she receives a breakthrough chance to get to know him better when she discovers that he is a "Hoover fixer" by trade–a miracle discovery, since she just happens to have with her a vacuum that desperately needs repairing (explaining, "It doesn't suck").

The Czech-immigrant Girl lures the Dublin-native Guy to a local music store owned by Spanish-born Billy, where she gets Guy to agree to fix her Hoover if she plays a song for him on the store's piano. Her Mendelsohn impresses him, but he is also clearly becoming more than just a bit intrigued by this persistent, serious-minded woman who sports a big, ever-present grin. She finally convinces Guy to sing one more of his own compositions. The first, soul-searching notes of "Falling Slowly" are followed by intoned slides into tenor heights, together convincing her that she needs to help Guy be discovered "by some fat man with a fat cigar" who can produce his music in a place like New York.

As Guy, Jake Gale goes into near trances as he strums his guitar and sings with half-closed eyes words that express unspoken, inner thoughts, in notes that expose deeply felt emotions. An impressive wide range in pitch, scale and timbre result in a song like "Falling Slowly" leaving a long-lasting impression. With a tendency toward underplaying in a cautious way, Jake Gale magnificently exposes moments of unexpected spontaneity when Guy seems even to surprise himself, as when he out-of-the-blue asks Girl the first time she meets his father, Da (Colin Thomson), "Do you want to see my room?"

The magnetic pull that Guy's notes have on our hearts increases several fold as Kaylee Miltersen's clear, initially understated voice joins him in mesmerizing harmony in their initial "Falling Slowly." The sensuous, searching pulls and tugs of her voice rise and fall in "If You Want Me" as her Girl and an echoing Guy both now imagine in song a possible love relationship. She seems to be searching for a sign that this is the man for her–she is still married to a husband now back in the Czech Republic and Guy is still in deep hurt for an ex who is now in New York. As Girl sits at her piano, her voice lays bare in "The Hill" through effortlessly scale-gliding notes her growing but conflicted love for a boy she only just met. Kaylee Miltersen combines a delightfully brash, forward, inquisitive spirit with an ability to convey raw, unfiltered emotions in song.

During a number of the songs that Guy and Girl sing both individually and together, other cast members who sit on the stage watching and fully engaged with intense interest, begin one-by-one to pick up their instruments to accompany them. They join to play and sing in ever-swelling harmonies that fill the air around us with magnificent and moving blends of instruments and voices. In Act One's finale, "Gold," some cast members scatter in the audience while others hard tap and move in unison to their Irish dances, still furiously playing their instruments and singing. Their individual musical excellence is superb across the board, as are the portrayals of their various characters–each of whom would be fun to join for a pint of Guinness (which is available during intermission from the pub's bar on stage).

There is Billy, the music store owner, played by Paul Henry, who exposes Billy's many sides that range from a bashful guy in puppy love with Girl to a jokester who pretends to be a judo expert (until his back spasm jerks him back into reality) to a brute quick-to-explode because he has no tolerance for capitalist bankers. One of those bankers whom Billy thinks is ruining his struggling business is Nick Kenbrandt's Bank Manager, who proves with hilariously squawking voice that he cannot sing ("Abandoned in Bandon") but can win over skeptics with his big heart and his capability with a cello.

In Girl's home are other fine musicians from the Old Country, including her pipsqueak daughter, Ivanka, who spins a tune on a small violin and sings with a child's full vigor (Sybil Wyatt, alternating the role with Stella Wyatt). Her mother, Baruška (a big-hearted, full-of-hugs Sarah Jebian), brother Andrej (guitar-and-tenor proficient Jesse Cortez), and housemates Švec (bombastic, often-hilarious drummer Nicolas Conrad) and Réza (a bold, brassy Chloe Angst capable of heavenly sung descants) take opportunities to introduce us to their individual personalities and touch upon aspects of their immigrant stories. Collectively with the other cast members (fourteen in total, all musicians of varying sorts), they leave behind at one point the many songs rooted in the Irish tradition for one rousing, table-top-dancing number that enthusiastically celebrates Czech and Eastern Europe traditions: "Ej, Pada, Pada, Rosicka."

The ensemble as a whole provides one of the evening's most gripping moments when in hushed harmonies they sing a cappella a reprise of "Gold," with director Stephen Muterspaugh once again scattering cast members to surround us with lusciously sung notes that slowly release their hold from one to the next, as directed musically by Joseph Murphy. The stunning song offers a sense of healing for the hurts and losses that various characters have experienced–both those we thus far know and those we can only surmise that they have experienced as immigrants or as an abandoned wife or as a widower. As are so many of the lyrics of this musical, their sung words carry lessons for us all: "And if a door close, then a road for home start building; and tear your curtains down, for sunlight is like gold."

The authentic pub setting with its look of wood, windows of green glass, and fully functioning bar is the design artistry of Christopher Fitzer and of properties designer Stephanie Dittbern. Especially noteworthy are the many moods that the exceptionally brilliant lighting design of Pamila Gray displays on the set, from intricate, shadow designs on the floor to the reflecting waters of Dublin's harbor.

From the brazen red worn by Reza to all the character-defining-enhancing outfits of the entire cast, Lisa Claybaugh has once again scored a winning array of costume designs. The songs of Guy and Girl are often shadowed by the slow, dreamlike movements of other cast members, part of the wonderfully conceived choreography of Francesca Cipponeri. And a virtual "standing o" goes to dialect coach Janel Miley for the coaching given to the entire cast, as Irish and Czech accents are delivered authentically and often with comic flair.

Besides leaving the theater after two and a half hours with the notes and phrases ringing in our ears from memorable numbers like "Say It to Me Now," "Sleeping," and "Gold," we also exit with hearts uplifted by a story where sadness and happiness unexpectedly meet and hold hands tightly in gratitude. And in this fabulously entertaining, uplifting, and often hypnotic production of Once at Hillbarn Theatre, we are also left with a resounding message that is core to the musical's lasting impact: "You cannot walk through life leaving unfinished love behind you."

Once runs through April 7, 2024, Hillbarn Theatre & Conservatory, 1285 East Hillsdale Blvd., Foster City CA. For tickets and information, please visit or call 650-349-6411.