Once, now onstage at Bucks County Playhouse, is a musical stage adaptation of an independent Irish film of the same name from 2007. The story chronicles the meeting of two musicians, an Irish busker and a Czech pianist, who meet by chance on the streets of Dublin and fall for each other through the songs they write and perform together. The couple, known only as Guy and Girl, bring out each other’s better selves, but have unresolved issues with relationships from their respective pasts.
The artist in everyone
Where the film was an understated examination of the relationship between Guy and Girl, the musical is a more boisterous ensemble affair (book by Enda Walsh, with music and lyrics by Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová). There’s a bit of an artist in all of us, no matter the roles we’ve chosen in life, or more likely, had thrust upon us. The desire to create is the invisible thread that connects across all realities, and can, in rare instances, bind a haphazard group of strangers together.
Guy and Girl (Matt DeAngelis and Mackenzie Lesser-Roy at Bucks County Playhouse) trade off serenading each other until they reach the logical conclusion that they should record an album, and they recruit a ragtag crew of misfits to help them pull it off. Everyone has their own reasons for wanting to participate, but the album ends up not being the means to an end, but the goal itself, a moment of unity before paths diverge once again.
All of the performers are pulling double duty, as every cast member is not only a gifted actor but an accomplished musician, handily providing their own instrumental backing as well as kicking the show off with a round of Irish pub songs. Here, Ryan Halsaver (Eamon the music producer) is the clear star, dancing while singing out a bawdy tune and winking at the audience, setting the performance off on a light note.
Humor threads throughout the story, buoying a sometimes-heavy narrative. Guy is two seconds away from giving up his music when we meet him; Girl is an underemployed single mother in a foreign country; and their friends and families are struggling just to get by—yet whenever reality threatens to encroach too deeply, someone provides a healthy dose of comic relief.
Most often it’s Lesser-Roy as Girl, whose nosy forthrightness elicits the most laughs, ironic for a character whose refrain is “I’m always serious. I’m Czech.” But it’s Brandon Ellis as Billy, the music-store owner with a tough persona and tender heart, who truly charms the audience. Of all the characters, Billy has the most potential to descend into stereotype, but in Ellis’s hands, he’s so endearing that we can’t help but root for him, and his chemistry with Jenn Chandler’s Bank Manager rivals that of the leads.
Joy in creation
The performance isn’t perfect. During Guy and Girl’s most emotional scenes, dialogue drags down the intensity of things better left unsaid. Choreographer Misha Shields gives Girl two bizarre avant-garde dance sequences that are tonally out of place. But these are forgivable offenses that don’t discount the joy of seeing these ordinary characters create something greater than the sum of its parts.
What, When, Where
Once. Directed by Travis Greisler. Through November 30 at Bucks County Playhouse, 70 S. Main Street, New Hope, PA. (215) 862-2121 or bcptheater.org.
Bucks County Playhouse offers an entrance ramp and wheelchair-accessible bathrooms.