Set in Dublin, this new musical bewitching audiences at Melbourne’s Princess Theatre, started life as a film of the same name.
It has won a plethora of awards, including eight Tonys a Grammy and an Academy award for best original song.
Upon entering the theatre, audience members are transported to a Dublin pub, with people milling around the stage enjoying a drink and a rousing and energetic sing-along. Imperceptibly the drinkers melt away into the audience, the tempo and style of music becomes more reflective, the lights dim and the show begins.
While Once is described as ‘a new musical’ it does not neatly fit the genre. The cast of 12 is on stage throughout, taking on the multiple roles – orchestra, band, characters, chorus – as the love story unfolds. The music is pivotal as the plot centres around a local songwriter/busker (known only as Guy) – disenchanted by his life and his music – and his chance meeting with a young Czech immigrant (Girl) who practises the piano, her instrument of choice, at the local music store.
Girl (Madeleine Jones) is moved by Guy’s music. She asks prying questions about the love and despair captured in his song writing. The story unfolds over a five-day period during which Girl convinces Guy to make an album, persuade a bank manager to cover the costs (a funny scene), rustle up some musicians, book a studio, and complete the recording.
Everything works. The blend of instruments – guitar, banjo, mandolin, accordion, violin, piano, drums, bass, and voices – swells and dips; dances and dives; taking the audience on an emotional roller coaster ride.
“Gold”, performed by Guy (Tom Parsons) at an open mike night in the Dublin pub is exquisite theatre.
Standing on the bar, Guy nervously begins strumming his steel-string guitar, only to quickly engage his fellow drinkers, who gradually join in the song.
What unfolds is an understated soaring tapestry of melody, emotion and syncopated movement, as both performers and audience are “walking on moon beams”.
The set accentuates the mood as the bar is surrounded by mirrors – large, small, square, rectangular – causing the light to bounce and fracturing the space, as we get glimpses of instruments and performers in the reflections.
The heart-felt ‘When Your Mind’s Made Up’, performed by Guy, Girl and ensemble is an angry, sad, stirring song which builds into a magnificent cacophony of voice and instruments, enveloping the audience in an avalanche of emotion.
Markéta Irglová, the original ‘Girl’ in the movie and co-songwriter with the original ‘Guy’, Glen Hansard, said when reflecting on the success of Once: “I had experienced that in my own life in a way that you can be a total stranger to somebody, and they can be a stranger to you, and yet when you start playing music together… there’s something that happens where it’s almost like your souls merge.”
Once is definitely a merging of souls.
It is sublime story-telling – rich, powerful and resonating. The music and the mood stay with you long after you leave the theatre.
Once at the Princess Theatre Melbourne until 9 November.
Review by Penny Mulvey.