Built around the soaring folk-pop songs of Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglova, Once is a rare bird of a musical, one that wears its heart entirely on its sleeve.
Exposed, as such, it’s easy to bruise. Showcasing it requires an uncommonly delicate touch, which this intimately-scaled production, directed by Richard Carroll, mostly demonstrates.
Extrapolated by Irish playwright Enda Walsh from John Carney’s lovely film, Once is the story of a Dublin busker (played here by Toby Francis) on the verge of quitting music and buckling down to life as a vacuum cleaner repairman with his taciturn dad (Cameron Daddo).
Then he meets The Girl (Stefanie Caccomo), a Czech immigrant and classically-trained musician. They click instantly in a musical sense. Sympatico and then some.
Beyond that kind of intimacy, things are … complicated.
The Guy is lonely but holds a torch for an ex-ish girlfriend who now lives in New York. He writes all his songs for her.
The Girl, meanwhile, is married to a man who has moved back to the Czech Republic. She has custody of their young daughter and lives in a share house with her mother.
Once’s tone is markedly different from conventional musical theatre. Its characters are ordinary people. Their lives are in many ways unremarkable and mostly, a bit of a struggle. Their failings are human, their victories uncertain.
All the music is played live by the cast (on violin, mandolin, accordion, guitars, cello, bass and percussion) and when they’re not engaged in a scene, everyone is very much involved in the supporting business of the production.
Not for nothing is Once described as the musical for people who don’t like musicals.
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This production – the show’s Sydney premiere – privileges its audience with a close-up experience that seems ideally-scaled to the story.
If you can get a ticket, thank your stars that Sydney doesn’t have the kind of cosy 500-600 seater that might make this show more commercially viable (this production has been realised with the support of several Darlo “angels”).
Their money has been well spent and you can see all of it. Hugh O’Connor’s enveloping set, suggestive of an Irish pub, offers versatile space and looks great under Peter Rubie’s excellent lighting. Amy Campbell has fashioned a style of movement that seems to rise organically from the songs.
Directed by Victoria Falconer (also a strong presence on stage playing the firecracker Reza), the musicianship is excellent across the board, propelled by Joe Accaria’s percussion and graced by the violin of Alec Steadman and cello of Conrad Hamill.
Carroll has assembled a fine cast. Francis (who starred in the similarly-scaled and themed High Fidelity at the Hayes a couple of years ago) plays the Guy with gruff reserve. We sense a wariness and fragility you don’t often see in a musical theatre context. His feels like a heart in peril.
Much given to deadpan, The Girl feels more obviously constructed (much more so than in the film) but Caccamo makes her prickliness appealing and vocally she’s outstanding, soars in the solo numbers and contributing beautiful dual lead vocals on the meltingly pretty Falling Slowly and the bustling 5/4 anthem When Your Mind’s Made Up.
Drew Livingstone shines as the musically inclined bank manager. Rupert Reid is warmly funny as the proprietor of a failing Dublin music store. Daddo brings quiet dignity to the role of Da.
By contrast, the playing of The Girl’s household seems a little over-ripe at times, the place coming across as a halfway house for Eastern-European comic types hoping to integrate into the wider community.
All perform Walsh’s broadly-sketched characters well though Joanna Weinberg (The Girl’s mother, Barushka) could easily step it down a couple of notches.
A special mention to Abe Mitchell, who stepped into the role of the depressive bass-player Andrej at very short notice. Three days rehearsal. You wouldn’t know it.
Once also plays at IPAC, Wollongong, July 24-28
The production returns to the Eternity Playhouse, Darlinghurst, July 30-August 4.