Thursday, June 20, 2019


Enda Walsh (Book); Glen Hansard & Markéta Irglov (Music & Lyrics)
(Based on the Movie by John Carney)

The Ensemble of Once
Even if the pre-show were the show, how could one not rush to pocket a ticket for 42nd Street Moon’s regional premiere of Once?  Thirteen hand-clapping, body-swaying, and foot-stomping singers – all also musicians – fill the intimate stage of the cozy Gateway Theatre with music of combined Celtic and Eastern European roots.  Soon, toes are tapping and heads are rhythmically nodding among the lucky, smiling audience members who have arrived early enough to enjoy the twenty-minute concert. 

But we have only seen and heard a sample of the richly evocative, soul-searching, emotionally charged music that Glen Hansard & Markéta Irglov have written for this 2012, eight-Tony-Award-winning musical.  Even more, we have not yet become immersed in a story by Enda Walsh (based on the 2007 movie by John Carney) that overflows with life-driving, life-changing passions for music, for love, and for a sense of self-fulfillment.  42nd Street Moon takes the much-revered company to a new level of profound excellence with a production of Once that immediately grabs its audience’s rapt attention with the first note and never lets go with its unforgettable story and its hauntingly beautiful music until the last chord gently fades away.

Corbin Mayer
A street-performer only identified as “Guy” begins “Leave” in a soft voice, reaching deep into a troubled self plagued by a love lost before finally increasing in volume with vocals now sharpened to an edge that cut to the core of his loss. “Leave, leave, let go of my hand,” ends in a final “Leave, leave” sung as a plea, a cappella. 

As he walks away from a guitar now abandoned on the street, a young woman we will know only as “Girl” rushes over with resolute resolve to insist that he not give up his music even though he says, “There’s no point to it anymore.”  Her cheerful curiosity but also unrelenting interest in him and his obvious talent receives a breakthrough chance to get to know him better when she discovers that he is a Hoover fixer by trade – a miracle discovery since she just happens to have with her a vacuum that desperately needs repairing (explaining, “It doesn’t suck”). 

The Czech-immigrant Girl lures the Dublin-native Guy to a local music store owned by Spanish-born Billy, where she gets Guy to agree to fix her Hoover if she plays a song for him on the store’s piano.  Her Mendelsohn impresses him, but he is also clearly becoming more than just a bit intrigued by this persistent, serious-minded woman who sports a big, ever-present, and toothy grin.  She finally convinces Guy to sing one more of his own compositions, with the first, earthy notes of the 2012 Tony-Award-winning song “Falling Softly” soon convincing her that she needs to help Guy be discovered “by some fat man with a fat cigar” who can produce his music in a place like New York.

As Guy, Corbin Mayer brings an incredible ability to underplay the role in a manner that only enhances the believability of a young man whose emotions well deep within him.  As he strums so intimately yet fervently his guitar, his vocals cover such a wide range in pitch and scale as well as in timbre that in a number like “Falling Softly,” we experience emotional secrets suddenly laid bear for all to know.  His openness of inner thoughts seems so unconsciously accidental in songs like ‘Say It to Me Now” and “Sleeping” that as audience members, we almost feel as if we are invading a privacy where maybe we should not be as he longs for the love of a girl he just met on the street.  Corbin Mayer takes a role that won Steve Kazee a Tony for Best Actor in a Musical and provides his own signature interpretation that will long remain in the memories of his audiences.

Olivia Clari Nice
The power of his vocals only increases when Olivia Clari Nice joins him from the piano, singing with a voice that blends in a harmony full of haunting in their initial “Falling Softly.”  The sensuous, searching pulls and tugs of her voice rise and fall in “If You Want Me” as her Girl and an echoing Guy both now imagine in song a possible love relationship.  She seems to be searching for a sign that this is the man for her – she still being married to a husband now back in the Czech Republic and Guy still in deep hurt for an ex who is now in New York.  When Girl sings “The Hill,” the individual words of the song often glide and slide in a single syllable in a flow conveying her searching for the answer to “Where are you my angel now?”  Olivia Nice’s voice touches our hearts as her song takes on the tear-filled, voice-rippling sound one might expect to hear from a country-western singer’s love ballad.  Both in voice and in acting, her Girl is another key reason this Once is ever-compelling during its entire two-hours, twenty minutes.

During a number of the songs that Guy and Girl sing both individually and together, other cast members who sit on the stage watching and fully engaged with intense interest often begin one-by-one to pick up their instruments to accompany them – instruments like a violin, mandolin, guitar, accordion, or even just a hollow box.  They join to play and sing in ever-swelling harmonies that fill the air around us with magnificent and moving blends of instruments and voices.  Sometimes in a song like the Act One finale “Gold,” the cast members’ risings to their feet seem as is they are almost caught up in a religious revival, standing to testify through their music.  Their individual musical excellence is superb across-the-board as is the portrayals of their various characters – each of which as an audience member, one grows in desire to sit for a while and get to know better.

Rob Ready & Matt Dvis
There is Billy, the music store owner, whom Rob Ready exposes to us Billy’s many sides that range from a bashful guy in puppy love with Girl to a jokester who will use his over-sized stature as a ploy for a laugh to a brute quick-to-explode because he has no tolerance for bankers.  One of those bankers whom Billy thinks is ruining his struggling business is Bank Manager (Matt Davis), who turns out not only to have a big heart and love for good music, but can also play a mean bass guitar. 

In Girl’s home are also other fine musicians from the Old Country who include her pipsqueak daughter, Ivanka, played with a dynamic voice and a big personality by youngster Emma Berman.  Her mother, Baruška (Ariela Morgenstern), brother Andrej (Brady Morales-Woolery), and housemates Švec (Ben Euphrat) and Réza (Devin Renée Kelly) each take opportunities to introduce us to their individual personalities and touch upon aspects of their immigrant stories – including hilarious references of how they learned English via TV soap operas.  Collectively with the other cast members (including Guy’s big-hearted Da played by Colin Thomson), they leave behind at one point the many songs rooted in the Irish tradition for one rousing, high-kicking number that enthusiastically celebrates Czech and Eastern Europe traditions: “Ej, Pada, Pada, Rosicka.”

The ensemble as a whole provides one of the evening’s most gripping moments when in hushed harmonies they sing a cappella a reprise of “Gold.”  As one of many inspired choices by Music Director Eryn Allen, lyrical phrases are punctuated by brief moments of pause, offering us time for the meanings to soak in.  The stunning song offers a sense of healing for the hurts and losses that various members have experienced – both those we thus far know and those we can only surmise that they as immigrants or as an abandoned wife or as a widower may know.  As are so many of the lyrics of this musical, their sung words carry lessons for us all: “And if a door close, then a road for home start building; and tear your curtains down, for sunlight is like gold.”

Cindy Goldfield directs 42nd Street’s Once with a patient touch that allows many moments of deliberate silence to communicate clearly their own messages.  Scenic changes are a slow dance of moving cast members that never break but only enhance the introspective mood of the story’s unfolding.  Brian Watson’s scenic design has the overall feel of a local pub where everyone knows each other – a setting that also quickly transforms to a store, a hill overlooking Dublin, or a bedroom by just the addition of a couple of trunks or a lone table.  Much of that transformational magic is made possible through the beautiful spells created by the spots and shadows of Michael Palumbo’s lighting design.  Travis Rexroat’s sound design brings in surrounding effects like a city’s traffic and an ocean’s waves while also producing a flawless balance among the many singing and instrument-playing cast members.  Cindy Goldfield not only has designed an impressively wide spectrum of fun choreography, but has also clothed the full cast in outfits that tell us on the outside who they are on the inside.

Besides leaving the theatre with the notes and phrases ringing in our ears from memorable numbers like “Falling Slowly, ” “If You Want Me,” and “Gold,” we audience members also exit with hearts uplifted by a story where sadness and happiness unexpectedly meet and hold hands tightly in gratitude. Once is a not-to-be-missed summer-welcoming gift to San Francisco by 42nd Street Moon – the kind of season-ending show that cannot help but send us home anticipating more must-be-seen productions in the upcoming season.  And we are also left with a resounding message none of us should quickly ignore:

“You cannot walk through life leaving unfinished love behind you.”

Rating: 5 E, “Must-See”

Once continues through June 30 in production by 42nd Street Moon at the Gateway Theatre, 215 Jackson Street, San Francisco.  Tickets are available at or by calling the box office at 415-255-8207.

Photos by Ben Krantz Studio

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