In Ireland, people are good at blarney. They even have some silly stone at the top of a castle that people queue up for to kiss. For what? A smack of the lips on the stone endows one with the gift of embellishment, of flattery, of wit, of bs-ing, of eloquence. It better be, because those hours spent in line to put your lips where so many have gone before are not coming back. But those legendary Irish skills with words and music — or in this case, Montreal skills — are what allows Once to move beyond its twee story about love never fulfilled.
In the Segal Centre production, Once focuses on a Dublin street musician on the night of his retirement. His heart is broken over a girl gone to New York, and he is so done that he’s leaving his guitar behind and giving up on his dreams. Oh, artists! His heartfelt final performance gets the attention of a Czech immigrant, Girl, who is unwilling to let him abandon his talent. She manic pixie dream girls her way into his life and their friendship-unrequired-loveship, rooted in musical collaboration, continues as they overcome obstacles to record Guy’s songs together.
The show, directed by Andrew Shaver, is polished and beautifully executed. The leads are held by two professional newbies, which is risky but gives them an aura as well as mirrors the storyline that ordinary people hold greatness in them if given the opportunity to reveal it. Scruffy, shoulder shrugging Greg Halpin, delivers a rather subtle Guy, until he sings and breaks open with emotion. Eva Foote is a ball of energy as Girl, a blonde haired, Czech-accented Zooey Deschanel.
The cast is on point. Marie Mahabal as seductress Reza, Billy Quinn as blustering music shop owner Billy, and all the rest deliver perfect comedic timing for the quirky characters that give Once its feel-good feel. Their talent as ensemble musicians elevates them from seeming like a stageful of lovable stock characters imported from late 1990s-early 2000s Channel 4 TV programs (granted, Black Books and Father Ted are timelessly watchable). They balance and support the two leads, never overpowering them.
Everything about the show’s production is excellent. The sets (Ken Mackenzie) are unfussy in suggesting slightly shabby homeyness. The costumes (Amy Keith) naturally fit the personalities of each character. The lighting and video production (Martin Sirois) is especially superb, something I am glad to see because Montreal is home to Canada’s light and video gods. The projection around the dock scene and the way subtitles flash on the wall behind the characters is a small masterwork.
The heart of the show is the music and the power of music to connect disparate people. Music is a container for complicated emotions and allows room for transformation. These fundamental truths are not so much spoken as shown through the plot and the musical numbers. The large cast takes this challenge on and delivers with every number. Annie St-Pierre’s choreography and David Terriault’s musical direction are excellent.
The intimacy of this production is a good fit for Montreal, and the musical resonates with the city’s successful indie folk scene. The cross cultural meeting involving a young mother and a broken hearted lad could take place in Mile End-Park Ex just as easily as Once’s Dublin.
Overall, despite the saccharine storyline and the old-fashioned/Millennial pursue-what-your-heart loves message, there’s much more to the Segal Centre’s production of Once. High music and production values, along with talented actors and bold casting choices craft a show well worth seeing. Besides, cute stories with quirky characters are sweet and no one leaves feeling this production like they’ve been hoodwinked.
Once is at the Segal Centre until October 28. For tickets and showtimes, click HERE.
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