By Kelly Hedglin Bowen, @kelhedglinbowen, Burlington Writer’s Workshop
Review of the musical Once at the Flynn on Monday, February 1, 2016
It was a Monday night, and I was exhausted, but I found myself sitting in the Flynn among the hustle of the crowd. I’d settled into my aisle seat while couples eagerly filed past to maneuver their partners into open seats. Although there was still thirty minutes left until curtain, a crowd gathered on the stage. I stood and peered over heads noticing that the stage had been transformed into what looked like an Irish pub. The backdrop was a sparsely lit wall lined with antique mirrors, in front of which stood a large black bar. An impromptu party had formed onstage as laughing and chatting people milled about with drinks in hand. There were no other props aside from a few wooden chairs and a mass of bodies.
I was focused on the crowd when the music began with a few sharp notes from a fiddle and a couple of vocal scales. Each seemingly random note gave way to careful choreography onstage as the musicians moved towards each other gently strumming their banjos and guitars and fiddles. A pre-show warm up, I thought, and felt lucky that I wasn’t late to the theater. I clapped through two or three foot-stomping Celtic numbers before realizing that the dress rehearsal had faded and the audience had settled down. As the onstage crowd drifted back to their seats, the theater lights dimmed. A center stage spotlight singled out a male musician playing guitar and singing as a female approached him from out of the darkness.
So began Once, the Tony Award-winning musical by Enda Walsh, which made its Burlington debut this past week to a packed house. Once plays out in modern-day Dublin and follows the simple story of a forlorn Irish street musician (played by the talented Sam Cieri) called Guy and an optimistic Czech woman (played by the gifted Mackenzie Lesser-Roy) called Girl. Pining for a lost love, a lonely Guy is on the verge of abandoning his musical dreams when in walks Girl. A recent immigrant and a struggling single mom, what Girl lacks in money she has in ambition. Full of spunk and a talented pianist herself, Girl sweet talks her way into Guy’s heart, and the two embark on their whimsical musical journey.
While dialogue intermingled with song, the music truly propelled the narrative. The ensemble as a whole became a character of the show. The actors moved set pieces and props all while singing, dancing, and playing instruments. The cast transformed from musicians to actors taking on supporting character roles and remaining onstage throughout the performance, lending needed energy to the more melancholy intimate scenes. Lesser-Roy and Cieri, surrounded by a band of wildly talented musicians, performed Glen Hansard’s and Marketa Irglova’s lovely score with its rich and layered composition. A special mention to Patricia Bartlett as Baruska (Girl’s Mother) on the accordion, and Liam Fennecken as Svec (a Czech friend) on guitar, mandolin, banjo, drums, and percussion, for not only their fabulous musical talent but the fantastic humor they brought to the stage.
Once is a two-act musical separated by a brief intermission during which folks were invited back onstage. As the pub reopened, the party continued. With everyone in casual dress, I couldn’t tell the audience from the cast. But perhaps that was the point. Within the conjured intimacy of an Irish Pub, the actors felt approachable, like old friends. It made perfect sense that we (the audience) would be privy to such a personal tale. Unlike other large Broadway musicals full of flashy sets and glitter, Once maintained its authentic Irish austerity. In that simple setting, the music prevailed, and the audience felt at home.
Once upon a time is a popular story opener, invoking the illusion of a romantic fairy tale. Once the Musical is no exception. It was all about illusion: from the stage that became a pub, the mirrors which captured the actors’ simple reflections, the warm-up that was the first act, to the casually-dressed cast indistinguishable from the audience itself. Once sweetly permitted us to suspend our everyday reality and, with renewed hope, bask in the golden glow of love’s fleeting grasp.