THEATER REVIEW: “Once” @ Proctors, 5/10/16

May 11th, 2016, 2:00 pm by Greg
Mackenzie Lesser-Roy and Sam Cieri with the ONCE Tour Company (photo: Joan Marcus)

Mackenzie Lesser-Roy and Sam Cieri with the ONCE Tour Company (photo: Joan Marcus)

Review by Greg Haymes

In its journey from a sweet/bittersweet 2007 indie film to an eight-time Tony Award-winning Broadway musical, it would have been easy to fuck up “Once.” Heck, it was almost inevitable that somebody – the book writer? the director? – would take a story so intimate and personal and bury it under a heaping helping of crowd-pleasing Broadway razzle-dazzle.

Fortunately, that’s not the case. In fact, this may be the perfect musical to drag someone to who thinks that they don’t like musicals…

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The touring company of “Once” commands the stage at Proctors in Schenectady this week not with spectacle and big production numbers, but rather with plenty of genuine heart and Irish soul. It’s a little show, and I mean that in the best way. It’s not an extravaganza. It all feels organic, eschewing all the smoke-and-mirrors of so many Broadway blockbusters.

And wisely, the narrative hasn’t been bludgeoned into the stereotypical boy-meets-girl, boy-loses-girl, boy-gets-girl-back-again and they-live-happily-ever-after story arc.

“Once” is a folk-pop musical about the redemptive, restorative power of music, and so naturally the music of Glen Hansard and Marekta Irglova (aka the Swell Season) – who both starred in the film – is at the core. And chances are that you’ll walk out of the theater with the closing “Falling Slowly” dancing around in your head. It’s a great song; Hansard and Irglova won an Academy Award for it. And the two lead actors Sam Cieri (as Guy) and Mackenzie Lesser-Roy (as Girl) deliver an appropriately powerful rendition.

But ironically, the most potent song of the show wasn’t penned by Hansard or Irglova, but rather by Fergfus O’Farrell, who passed away in February. “Gold” didn’t quite have the required impact as the Act One closer, but the hymn-like a cappella reprise in Act Two is the show’s most majestic moment.

The slight plot revolves about a Dublin street busker/vacuum cleaner repairman who is about to give up his dream of playing music. “The music – nobody wants to hear it. It’s easier to walk away,” Guy explains. He sings unrequited love songs about his girlfriend who broke up with him and moved to New York City. He’s about to abandon his guitar – and, in fact, music – until a young Czechoslovakian woman hears him sing and encourages him. Complications ensue…

Director John Tiffany has conjured a most non-traditional staging conceit – there is no orchestra. Rather the dozen actors of the ensemble actually double as the musicians, playing the music on guitars, fiddles, percussion and mandolins from their seats on both sides of the stage, and enter the center-stage action when called upon. They also act as the stagehands, pushing the piano and other minimal set pieces around the stage between scenes.

The choreography of Steven Hoggett isn’t really dance at all; in the program, he’s credited with designing “movement.” But it adds a strong element of magical realism to the performance, enhancing the power of dreams. Bob Crowley’s captivating pub set design, featuring a curved wall of distressed mirrors, makes for a warm and versatile setting that reflects the poignancy and the struggles of the working class characters.

But ultimately, the show is all about the music.

So get to the show early, grab a beverage – the onstage bar may be open for business prior to the show and during intermission – and settle in before curtain time as the actor/musicians serve as their own warm-up act for the show, offering an assortment of raucous, rowdy pub sing-alongs and sentimental Irish ballads. Sink into it…

WHAT: “Once”
WHERE: Proctors, Schenectady
WHEN: Through Sunday (May 15)
HOW LONG: Two hours & 15 minutes, including intermission
HOW MUCH: $20-$80

Excerpt from Steve Barnes’ review at The Times Union: “Imbued with the ragged indie spirit of folk rock and set to earnest, searching tunes that couldn’t be further from the scores for ‘The Lion King,’ ‘The Sound of Music,’ ‘A Chorus Line’ and their ilk, ‘Once’ is fresh and genuine and honest. The touring production stopping at Proctors this week is uniformly excellent — so much so that you long to see it in a smaller space like Capital Rep in Albany. It doesn’t get lost on the large stage, but the grand setting feels incongruous for the material. Though ‘Once’ is a love story at heart, that love is as much about the making of music as it is about romantic feelings between two people. Deliberately small in scale and adamant about its refusal to offer easy answers or predictable resolutions, ‘Once’ in its own gentle, intimate way is an antidote, maybe even a rebuke, to crowd-pleasing Broadway spectacles.”

Sam Cieri and Mackenzie Lesser-Roy (photo: Joan Marcus)

Sam Cieri and Mackenzie Lesser-Roy (photo: Joan Marcus)

One thought on “THEATER REVIEW: “Once” @ Proctors, 5/10/16”

  1. Kim Kilby says:

    Great review. Spot on! This is my second time seeing Once and I feel this production was even better than the last. Sam Cieri especially. What a refreshing sight to behold in a Broadway scale production. This show has it all… unique artistic design, superbly subtle choreography, simple costumes, beautifully written compositions, true musicianship, and the real life struggle with the work of love.
    I was so pleased at how receptive the audience was, knowing up front that this was no Andrew Lloyd Webber show stopper. Thanks to Proctors for bringing this truly special and genuine show to Schenectady.

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