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 by Toby Francis) on the verge of quitting music and buckling down to life as a vacuum cleaner repairman with his taciturn dad.
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.
This production – the show’s Sydney premiere – privileges its audience with a close-up experience that seems ideally-scaled to the story. 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 and 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.