The playful, sentimental Once is a production for our times, the perfect cure for all that ails us, writes David Zampatti.
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Once – The Musical, Black Swan State Theatre Company & Darlinghurst Theatre Company ·
Regal Theatre, 1 June 2022 ·
Call it a hunch, but the first thing I did after seeing Once – The Musical at the Regal Theatre was search “Once Falling Slowly Eddie Vedder” on YouTube.
And there he was, the Pearl Jam front man, epitome of ’90s Seattle grunge and legendary musical sponge, belting out Once’s Academy Award-winning signature song with its Irish co-writer Glen Hansard to attentive, teary-eyed audiences from Firenze to Phoenix. Not Vedder’s usual stock-in-trade, you would imagine.
But “Falling Slowly” is a dead-set banger of a power ballad, and it’s got plenty of company, much of similar ilk, in this warm, heartfelt story of an Irish guy (Toby Francis) and a Czech girl (Stefanie Caccamo) – two kindred spirits drawn together, and kept apart, by the lives they lead, and led.
It’s a neatly constructed and surprisingly restrained story, too. The guy and the girl meet on a Dublin street and bond over a malfunctioning vacuum cleaner (it makes sense, trust me) and a bunch of his unfinished songs. A wary attraction turns to a love, though not necessarily one that conquers all (their story in part mirrors the relationship between Hansard and his Czech/Icelandic co-writer Markéta Irglová, who wrote the music and starred in the 2007 film version of Once on which the stage musical is based).
Apart from the appeal of the songs, the great strength of Once is the sheer energy of its staging, and it’s hard to imagine it could be delivered better than this production by Black Swan and the Darlinghurst Theatre Company, who gave it its first Australian season in 2019.
Most of the cast and creative team, including director Richard Carroll, musical director Victoria Falconer, movement director Amy Campbell and designer Hugh O’Connor worked on that original production, and their commitment and delight in the work is apparent.
It needs to be. The 12 performers act, sing, dance and perform all the show’s music live, often while hoofing, clambering over the set and, in one case, at breakneck speed on inline skates. I don’t know how many “threats” that adds up too, but it must be some sort of record.
When they come together, in Once’s numerous ensemble set-pieces, the exuberance and skill of the performance is thrilling; its comic pieces – the bank manager’s (Gus Noakes) wildly off-key “Abandoned in Bandon”, the knees-up “Ej, Pada, Pada, Rosicka” – lift the mood craftily, and its Mitteleuropean and Gaelic undercurrents are ever-present but not exaggerated (there was a moment I feared something Riverdance-esque might be on the cards, but the crisis soon passed).
Falconer’s musical direction is inventive and witty throughout (she also performs with all the sass we saw in Black Swan’s Oklahoma in 2020 and the famous, long-running Fringe act she mysteriously doesn’t list in her CV), and Campbell’s movement direction is often miraculous.
O’Connor’s single bar room set is deceptively old-school but reveals its quality under Peter Rubie’s essential lighting design that fills the space with warmth and intimacy, allowing characters to slip in and out of focus without leaving the stage.
With all this going on, and with all the art and craft being employed, it’s a singular achievement by Carroll to make it look like the show has had a couple of drinks and become playful and sentimental of its own accord.
It’s the love songs, those power ballads, that drive Once, and Francis and Caccamo excel throughout. Francis is handsome, powerful and vulnerable (the Vedder comparison is apt), and you can believe someone like him exists away from the stage.
The show, though, is Caccamo’s. She’s so smart and direct, gives her dialogue with Francis terrific wit and retort, sings and plays beautifully and simply pulverises her second act solo “The Hill”.
After these past couple of years it’s wonderful to be back out and about, especially in friendly confines like the Regal; it’s hard to think of a better way to do it than upon a time at Once.
Pictured top: The cast of ‘Once – The Musical’ in full swing. Photo by Daniel J Grant
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