Review: ‘Once’ is a stunning fusion of passion, nuance, immersion and talent

Musicals born of film adaptations abound — perhaps even more so than truly remarkable love stories. But there’s nothing like “Once,” the 2012 Broadway adaptation of a beautiful little independent Irish film that practically swept the Tony Awards. And Mason Street Warehouse brings this unique gem of a musical that actually improves upon John Carney’s gorgeous, damn-near perfect 2006 film to its fullest potential with an extraordinary cast who tell a love story the likes of which the stage has never seen, and with a depth of emotion so moving, to witness it feels like a spiritual experience.

With book by Enda Walsh and music by Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová (who also starred in the film), “Once” tells the story of two aspiring musicians, a guy (Brian Ogilvie) and girl (Julie Benko) from different cultures whose paths cross at a moment in their lives in which they’re each broken hearted. Surrounded by their respective tribes — she, a house full of Czech immigrants (Jason Cohen, Claire Wellin, Alan Mendez), including her mother (Cory Goodrich) and daughter (Ella Reckley); and he, his Da (Larry Tobias) and fellow Dubliners (Chris Blisset, Lauren Wright, Jenn Chandler, Alex Hamel, Alex Canty) — they connect through the poignant ballads and folk rock they've written about their sorrow and angst in the glorious “dirty old town” and New Millenial EU metropolis of Dublin.

And though with very different personalities and styles, and despite their wounds, they spur each other on and strive to create something together that’s larger than themselves while remaining committed to their familial duties. In the end, they create an album, a community and the deepest, truest kind of love we almost never see glorified, certainly not on stage and in a musical.

But it’s much less the situation and more the extraordinary way Director Kurt Stamm takes us on a very deliberate journey and tells this magnificent story, largely through music that’s positively electrifying (without being in any way flashy) and performed live by the dozen extraordinary actor-musicians who make up the cast and each play their own instruments — as well as through the stunning little gestures, silences, powerful moments of humanity that sneak up on you, make your heart swell and your eyes well with tears of recognition.

The narrative arc and character development through thousands of choices both subtle and grand are so effective that the exact same song performed in Act I and Act II is transformed in meaning and makes the move from pretty to bust-out-the-Kleenex. Grammy Award winning “Falling Slowly” is but one of many brilliant songs drawn from the film that allow Brian Ogilvie as Guy and Julie Benko as Girl to communicate a vast array of emotion as if intermingling souls.

That’s not to say the music isn’t also riveting in a rousing way. Musical Director Chris Blisset (who also plays the delightfully bold and impassioned Billy) leads much of the cast in what can only be described as a Cèilidh, a big Irish dance party driven by traditional Irish music, beginning a half hour before curtain with an actual bar upstage serving patrons who meander onto the stage to wet their whistles.

At various moments throughout the show the cast members play fiddles, guitars, mandolins — among other strings, cajon box drums amid other percussion, and piano as well as accordion, sometimes all at once in a swelling crescendo, and for other quieter scenes, just one instrument and one voice. Individually and collectively, they’re brilliant instrumentalists and singers worth the cost of admission to hear them play even apart from the tremendous story and characters (both authentically Czech and Irish — through language, accent, rhythm, gestures). The music is also woven into exquisite scene transitions and set changes, with echoes of songs slightly changed as interludes. Simply put, this is a musical for people who think they don’t like musicals as well as for musical lovers alike.

Though there are fairly grand numbers beautifully choreographed by Stamm, with chairs upon which the actors step and boldly move on and around, the movement is never a showy spectacle and always heightens emotion in a sly way that hits you in the center of the chest. With brilliant symbolic parallel structure, three women wearing headphones stage right express aching and yearning through dance in “If You Want Me” followed in a later scene by three 9-to-5 minions seated at a desk stage left wordlessly working themselves to death in passionless jobs as if in a cultural plea for a different life, the one Guy and Girl are trying to navigate against all odds. And then there are little physical moments, like the full-body hug between two women, immigrants from the same culture who truly see each other — their longings and their impossible obstacles — that’s so full of heart, so real, to witness it is to choke up a little.

It is this wonderful level of detail — though it often happens in a flash — that fills in so many of the film’s narrative gaps to make this iteration of the story more robust and ultimately more satisfying. Likewise, Jennifer Kules’ emotive lights, Jeremy Barnett’s gritty yet understated set dressed with wonderful little tchotchkes by Properties Mistress Kacey VanderMolen, and Darlene Veenstra’s costumes that evoke culture and class are all integral to creating this terrific story and characters.

Every single performance here is touching, nuanced, complex and works so beautifully with every other simultaneous performance on stage, it’s an ensemble to the highest degree. What Brian Ogilvie and Julie Benko create in their honest, awkward, sweet, surprising, funny, genuine, evolving relationship and characters together as well as separate, is an astounding achievement and the crux of the story from which everything else radiates. Their acting cannot be separated from their melodious voices or from her inspired keyboard skills or from his excellent guitar playing. They are spectacular. And yet their achievement and multitalented presence cannot be separated from that of every other player on stage.

“Once” at Mason Street Warehouse is theater, is live performance, is music, is dance, is cultural immersion, is storytelling, is elemental love and passion and duty and art at its absolute best. It’s not just one thing, it’s all things — wrapped up in a magnificently spirited creation of beauty.

Mason Street Warehouse
Aug. 17-Sep. 2