“Once” is at its very best at Writers Theatre

Photo by Michael Brosilow

Once was the first show I ever saw on Broadway. I had not ever done the whole “go to New York to see plays” thing, satisfied to wait for them to come to Chicago. But then Fate intervened: one of my former students (Jessie Fisher) was elevated from understudy to Girl; I absolutely had to do to see her in her Broadway debut. I’d always loved the film and the music, but I had never seen the musical live. Both Jessie and the show were revelations well worth the trip. I have, of course, been back to NY to see plays many times since then, though nothing beats the first time. Still, Once is not a show to be seen only…well…once. And Writers Theatre’s production is easily my favorite of those I have seen. (Sorry, Jessie.) In fact, it may well be the definitive production ever of the musical.

Yes, it’s that good.

It’s a special show on Broadway or off, but this show deserves the intimate staging that Writers can give it more than the ambiance, however exciting, of a Broadway house. In essence, it is a group of actor/musicians on a stage telling a sweet story about a couple with no real hope for a future together—she is married and he is still in love with his ex—while at the same time showing the importance of music to an entire culture (in this case, Ireland). It is not a typical rom/com (for one thing it is completely self-aware: Girl (Dana Saleh Omar) even asks Guy (Matt Mueller), “Is this our meet-cute?”) But the fact that this plot puts insurmountable obstacles in their way does not mean they can’t love each other or that the play cannot end satisfactorily. Typical of Irish folk ballads—the company here plays many of them as a pre-show—the happy-ever-after thing is not as important as the story and the lives that get changed. (A great many of these Irish ballads are actually sad. Love everlasting is denied, though life goes on.)

Writers’ production, directed and choreographed by Katie Spelman with music direction by Matt Deitchman, provides a showcase for every single cast member while telling the Enda Walsh story of a down-on-his-luck busker and the lively and guileless Czech immigrant who takes it upon herself to revive his nearly dead hopes and dreams. Omar’s Girl would brighten anyone’s life. The contrast between her calm and controlled demeanor (“I’m always serious. I’m Czech.”) and the obvious love and joy she brings to her mother Beruska (Bethany Thomas, as brilliant as ever), her young daughter (Kajsa Allen and Viva Boresi share the role), her Czech roommates (Liam Oh, Elisa Carlson, and Lucas Looch Johnson), and basically everyone she meets. She hangs out at a local Dublin music shop where, in exchange for her allowing some harmless flirting, owner Billy (Matt Edmonds in a wonderful comic turn), allows her time to play the shop’s piano.

(Even her piano playing is full of joy. Before she begins, she stretches out over the cabinet to “say hello.” Somehow, though it is silly, it is also beautiful. No wonder she easily gets Guy under her spell.)

As if she has willed it so, Girl convinces Guy—so recently ready to give up on everything including, it is hinted, living—to assemble a band and record a demo CD. And as if he has willed it so, their friends and acquaintances—rounded out by Elleon Dobias, Jordan Golding, and Yuchi Chiu as a bank manager-turned-musician—assemble at a local studio where the manager (Deitchmann) quickly realizes he has the Real Thing on his hands. Playing songs popularized in John Carney’s 1997 movie such as “Falling Slowly,” “When Your Mind’s Made Up,” and “If You Want Me” (all written by the film’s Guy and Girl, Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová), the very talented Mueller and Omar are in fact the “real thing,” pulling the audience in with the heart they put into the music and souls that we can easily believe reach out for each other.

Ron E. Rains provides some realistic grounding as Da, Guy’s Hoover-fixer father. Guy, who works for his da when he can’t make enough money busking—which lately has been a lot—at one point sings a self-deprecating song called “Broken-Hearted Hoover Fixer Sucker Guy.” This show endears itself to its audience by being unafraid of lightly mocking its own earned sincerity.

As thoroughly wonderful as all of this is, Spelman’s direction and choreography both brighten and sharpen it. I was not at all surprised, at intermission, to discover that the same person performed both jobs: the way that the characters’ movement is integrated into scene changes and backup work just feels like a single creative mind at work. As the characters and the music all blend together, so too do the blocking and the choreography. And I accidentally found myself in the perfect location to experience it. My husband recently lost a leg and this was his first show back in the theatre. We were seated in Writers’ balcony-level area for disabled patrons. The vantage point, above the stage but still intimately near the performers, allowed us to see clearly the ways in which the individual movements flowed together into amazingly theatrical moments. It was stunning, as was everything else in this vibrant, funny, and poignant show.

One thought on ““Once” is at its very best at Writers Theatre

  1. I saw it last night,I loved it,believe it or not I had not seen it before ,not even watched the movie. I had some idea of what it was about but not much more than that. I loved walking into the theatre and having the music already being made.Writers’ Theatre’s musicals are always something special.

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