Beyond Wellesley: Theater review, “Once” at SpeakEasy Stage in Boston’s South End

To enter SpeakEasy Stage at the Calderwood Pavilion in Boston’s South End for the venue’s Spring musical is to enter an Irish pub in a successful search for good craic. The word is pronounced “crack”, which is one reason you don’t hear anyone in the States ask, “where’s the craic”, as the Irish do when they’re looking for an entertaining way to pass the time. But if you can give yourself over to the Gaelic way of understanding the word, well you’ll be all right, then at Once, the story of Guy and Girl who meet on the streets of Dublin and make beautiful music together.

Once, SpeakEasy Stage
Nile Scott Hawver and Mackenzie Lesser-Roy. Photo credit: Maggie Hall Photography

As the audience searches for their seats, a merry ensemble cast made up of ten triple-threat talents plays jaunty tunes, dances jigs, and lends a general air of convivial fun to the scene. All that and good acting, too, in this Tony Award-wining play based on the motion picture, with music and lyrics by Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová. Playing through April 8 at the theater located at 527 Tremont Street, Once is the romantic and wistful love story of a lonely and recently heartbroken Guy. He’s artistically blocked in his music and about to set down his guitar forever, when he meets Girl on the streets of Dublin. She’s an immigrant, a Czechoslovakian powerhouse who didn’t come all the way to Ireland to let people she first finds, and then believes in, quit.

Tis himself

Guy, played with a melancholy air by Nile Scott Hawver, is a lost soul, questioning every decision he’s ever made in his life. Why bother to play music? Why does he still live with his father over the vacuum repair shop? (Yes, the obvious jokes about sucking are made.) What is he doing in this world? This is quarter-life crisis stuff, and could grow quickly tiresome if Hawver didn’t let the audience see in fits and starts that somewhere under all that hang-dog is someone who once had dreams. It’s two steps forward and one step back for Guy, but Hawver keeps us pulling for him rather than letting us become exasperated by Guy’s occasional backslide into a place of stuck.

Girl, an accomplished pianist without a piano of her own, enters Guy’s life as a whirlwind of hope and determination. “Where do you get your energy?” Guy asks. “I’m a young mother,” Girl says. “We are a special breed.” Mackenzie Lesser-Roy delivers this and many lines with perkiness, but that’s not all that Lesser-Roy brings to the role. Underneath, she shows us a Girl with a strong resolve that is alternately ascribed to her upbringing (“I am always serious. I am Czech”) and her obligation complications, revealed to the audience hint-by-hint. In just five days, Girl becomes Guy’s muse, a positive force who changes his life for the better. Ultimately, though, she is a muse and a force who cannot make herself fully available to him.

But the ones that we love aren’t the ones that love us…

And that’s love according to piano shop owner Billy, played with fire and emotion by Billy Butler who is sometimes a marshmallow, sometimes long-suffering, and sometimes fighting-Irish bombastic. Marshmallow Billy lets Girl play piano in his shop, just so that he can occupy the same space as her. Resigned Billy tells Guy, “You’re a love thief. I respect you for that.” Selfish Billy kicks the whole band out of his shop when they are rehearsing for the big recording studio date. He even calls the banker (played by Jeff Song as a skeptic with a heart of gold and an artist’s soul) financing the venture a wanker. Yep, banker the wanker. It’s got a certain ring to it.

Billy Meleady and Kathy St. George, with cast. Photo credit: Maggie Hall Photography

It all adds up to a musical love story with a thread of melancholy that runs throughout. It’s the classic scenario: Guy meets Girl. Guy is transformed by Girl. Guy loses girl, never having gotten her in the first place. Then Guy crosses the pond, because like they say in that other little play, Hamilton, “In New York you can be a new man.”

Similar to SpeakEasy Stage’s last Spring’s musical, Bridges Over Madison County, love asserts itself as the most powerful force in the world, but due to life circumstances the characters are able to harness only part of that power. What’s that old story about Einstein saying we productively use only 10% of our brain? If that’s true, is it also possible that we properly channel only 10% of the love inside us? If so, as far as I can tell the other 90% sort of runs wild, or disappears into the ether, or explodes in seemingly unrelated ways, which is largely how love goes in this play.

Once is directed by SpeakEasy General Manager Paul Melone who keeps the up and down tempo of the play largely up, in no small part due to the band of musicians who appear onstage and make merry, even when Guy is clearly struggling. Although the play is all about Guy and Girl, the entire cast is very much in evidence throughout, either playing music or acting in a scene. No surprise that the best part of this musical  is the songs, especially “Falling Slowly,” the film version of which won an Academy Award in 2007 for Best Original song. The play also won eight Tony awards including Best Musical in 2012. At SpeakEasy, the company was particularly on its game during Act 2’s beautiful “Gold.”

I get by with a little help from my friends

Reza, the game flatmate every Girl needs for a BFF, who “seduces men for fun” (played with a surprisingly not incongruous Czech joie de vivre by Marta Rymer); Andrej, (with unfettered emotion by Jacob Brandt), who’s come to Ireland to play big; and Da (by Billy Meleady, with solid practicality and great love for Guy, his son) were stand-out supporting actors, easy to love especially when they’re folk dancing in the kitchen.

Marta Rymer, Chris Coffey, Jacob Brandt, and Kathy St George. Photo credit: Maggie Hall Photography

The sets brought you into well-worn and comfortable rooms, places where songs are sung, life has its ups and downs, and people support each other through disappointment and cheer each other when fortunes rise. Music is always in evidence. When you’re not listening to songs, you’re noticing the instruments in every corner, the trumpets hanging on the wall, the speakers in the back of the room. The straight-back chairs, often moved around, convey a sense of impermanence. No one is sitting around in one place for too long in this play, so there’s no need for upholstered comfort. All the characters, in one way or another, are in a period of change.

Also, the reverse subtitles were a creative touch. At times we’re given to understand that the Czech characters are speaking in their native language. What we hear is English. What we see is the Czech language projected onto the wall behind them.

Lots of f-bombs in the play, so if you’re sensitive to language, or you’d rather not expose your younger kids, you’ve been warned. Theater-loving high school students would enjoy Once. But the audience who might most appreciate it are the sorts looking for a different way to get their Irish on as St. Patrick’s Day approaches. Taking in Once is a great alternative to celebrating the saint who drove the snakes out of Ireland, without overindulging with green beer or Shamrock Shakes, or playing along with that silly Unicorn song. Been there, done that. If you want a crowd-pleasing musical that gives audiences a lovely theater experience, then go to SpeakEasy Stage instead, do that.

Once

With: Jacob Brandt* (Andrej); Billy Butler (Billy); Clara Cochran (Ivonka); Chris Coffey (Svec); Nile Scott Hawver* (Guy); Mackenzie Lesser-Roy* (Girl); Billy Meleady* (Da); Robert X. Newman (Emcee); Marta Rymer (Reza); Stephen Shore* (Eamon); Jeff Song* (Bank Manager); Kathy St. George* (Baruska); Ellie van Amerongen* (Ex-girlfriend).

Directed by Paul Melone; Music Direction by Steven Ladd Jones; Choreography by Ilyse Robbins; Scenic Design by Eric Levenson**; Costume Design by Rachel Padula-Shufelt; Lighting Design by Karen Perlow**; Sound Design by Andrew Duncan Will; Production Stage Manager, L. Arkansas Light*; Assistant Stage Manager, Lauren Burke*

* Member of Actors’ Equity Associaton
** Member of United Scenic Artists, Local USA 829

UPDATE: SpeakEasy Stage Company has added seven more performances of its acclaimed production of the Tony Award-winning musical Once. The show will now play through Sunday, April 7, 2019. The entire original cast will remain for the additional week. Tickets for the extended run go on sale Friday, March 8, at noon.

SpeakEasy Stage, 527 Tremont St., Boston, 617-933-8600

The theater is handicapped accessible.

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