Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Florida - West Coast

OnceFlorida Studio Theatre
William S. Oser | Season Schedule

Also see Bill's review of La Traviata

Ben Paul Williams and Elizabeth Nestlerode
Photo by Matthew Holler
Florida Studio Theatre begins its 2017-2018 Mainstage Series with Once, with music and lyrics by Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova, book by Enda Walsh. This musical won the 2012 Tony Award for Best Musical and a whole bunch of other Tonys in a very weak year for musicals. Reviews were mixed, with the New York Times highly positive and theater cognoscenti strongly divided, with about half loving it and the other half half immune to its charm. Put me down in the latter camp; I didn't find myself strongly involved with our hero and heroine. One of the criticisms of Once on Broadway was that it was too intimate for a Broadway house. That is not a problem at FST, the show is a perfect fit for the 240 seat Gomperz Theatre.

When the authors can't even give their central romantic couple names, maybe they are too generic to care about. Sometimes great songs can fill in when the libretto fails, but most of the songs are not dramatically specific enough to do that. Midway through the second act, more focused than the first, we get a book scene and song for our hero, called Guy, that began to pull me in, followed by one for Girl, as our heroine is called. Unfortunately, his song, while good, contains some things that do not exactly fit his situation, and her song, dramatically right on target, has an uninteresting melody.

FST's production is first rate. The ensemble is full of fine musicians who jump from instrument to instrument. Three different cast members play accordion, two play cello, almost everyone has a go at one guitar or another, plus a mandolin, and three fiddlers. Arrive early to catch the pre-show where the stage becomes an Irish pub with lots of singing and dancing. Ben Paul Williams as Guy finds a nice balance between handsome leading man and gawkish, unworldly, and unsure of himself, but with an inner fire that comes out in his music. Elizabeth Nestlerode as Girl nicely acts the part, which is a whirlwind of conflicting emotions tempered by being Czech, transplanted to Ireland. Her singing is lovely, but, unfortunately, she does not get more than one solo spot.

Standouts playing featured parts and taking part in the musical ensemble are Chris Blisset as Billy, Paul Lincoln as Bank Manager and prominently on cello, Emily Mikesell as Girl's mother, Grant Alan Watkins as Svec, and Kent M. Lewis as Eamon. The ensemble as a unit is probably the star of the show.

Jason Cannon directs and keeps things in nice focus, as much as the material allows. The rollicking atmosphere that our story takes place in, the chemistry between the small parts, and our romantic couple are all testament to his fine work. In the end, the problems with the piece itself, at least for me, are not Mr. Cannon's doing. Darren Server is the music director, and responsible for how fine the ensemble music-making is. The scenic design by Jeff Dean is simple but realistically plants us in an Irish pub and opens up the Gompertz stage bigger than I have ever seen it. Costume design by Susan Angermann is effective and realistic for the time and place. Lighting design is by Thom Beaulieu and sound design by Thom Korp.

There are going to be a lot of people in this area who warm to Once in a way that I do not. The musical managed a healthy three-year run on Broadway, after two months Off-Broadway at New York Theatre Workshop, a fairly substantial hit there and on the road and around the world. Florida Studio Theatre is giving it a fine production.

Florida Studio Theatre presents Once through December 31, 2017, at the Gompertz Theater 1241 N. Palm Avenue, Sarasota FL. For tickets and performance information, please call the box office at (941) 366-9000 or visit

Cast (in order of appearance):
Guy: Ben Paul Williams*
Girl: Elizabeth Nestlerode*
Billy: Chris Blisset*
Da: James Young*
Ex-Girlfriend: Lauren Wainwright
Andrej: Seth Eliser*
Reza: Sarah Hund*
Svec: Grant Alan Watkins
Baruska: Emily Mikesell*
Ivonka: Nya Chambless/Olivia Schaedler-Luera
Bank Manager: Paul Lincoln*
Emcee: Nick Lerangis
Eamon: Kent M. Lewis*
*=Member of Actors' Equity Association