Review: A show like this happens only ‘Once.’ You don’t want to miss it.
When I saw the touring Broadway production of “Once” at the Saroyan Theatre several years ago, I enjoyed its robust musicality and charming sense of ensemble. The show calls for a tremendous amount of camaraderie between the cast members. I thought the professional actors did everything you’d expect in such a situation: They were jovial, tender, connected.
But it still felt like acting.
I didn’t feel the core charisma of real Irish people sharing real Irish bonds. There was something programmed and routine about the exuberant display of geniality on stage. This still felt, at heart, like a job for these actors.
I don’t feel that way about CenterStage Clovis Community Theatre’s production of “Once.”
It feels like the real thing.
Part of it is likely the length of the run. With just two weekends, each of the Clovis performances is something precious. You can feel the joy on stage. If you were somehow able to harness the wattage of Kate McKnight and Lex Martin’s effusiveness and passion for the material, say, it could light the Clovis Veterans Memorial Auditorium for the rest of the year.
For those whose knowledge of “Once” is restricted to the beloved movie, the Broadway musical broadens the community spirit of the material. One of the key ways is by having ensemble members double as the “orchestra.” It’s quite an operation. A cello, bass, violins, ukelele, mandolin, accordion, percussion and plenty of guitars are all over the stage. But thanks to Darren Tharp’s inspired direction, these musicians become a choreographic force. (Erin Roberts created the movements.) In some numbers, they become a cross between ballet and marching band.
The storyline remains simple: A “Guy” (played by Ted Nunes in a role seemingly custom-made for his skill set as an actor and musician) is languishing as a busker on the streets of Dublin. Along comes a “Girl” (a charming Carly Oliver, another local theater veteran), who is entranced by the music and embarks on a busybody campaign to pump up her new friend’s confidence. Can she help round up the money to get him to New York with a demo album?
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The music (by Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova) has a sad, briny taste to it, reflecting the middle-age complications of love and loss. The best known tune, “Falling Slowly,” creeps into your nervous system like a warm Irish fog, infusing it with hope and longing. Nunes’ vocals especially feel raw and pure, and Oliver’s solo “The Hill” is stellar. Acting-wise, McKnight, Thomas Hayes and Camille Gaston all nail punchy comic performances.
The production had a high level to match after the company’s stunning “All Is Calm” last year, and while “Once” doesn’t always reach those heights in terms of acting, sound design and production design, the music soars. The ensemble includes such local standout musicians as The Gillygirls Band and vocalist Melinda Salcido.
I loved a lot of Dan Aldape’s work in this production – particularly the way the lights embrace the audience in “Falling Slowly.” The projections are astonishingly sharp – perhaps too sharp – and sometimes realistic. However, the back-and-forth between realistic photos and softer, more impressionistic images feels awkward.
The end of the show includes an extended audience-participation number, and here’s where that community spirit shines once again. In the Broadway tour, I could imagine the cast slipping back to their hotel rooms and immediately falling asleep; with this “Once,” so many endorphins must be released that I can’t see anyone nodding off before 4 a.m. And when they do, they’ll be dreaming of Ireland.