Once (Melbourne Theatre Company & John Frost, 2014)
Everyone raves about Once. Based on the 2006 film which won an Oscar for best song, Once opened to critical and commercial acclaim on Broadway in 2012, going on to win eight Tony awards, including best musical. I’ve only ever heard good things about it. And despite all that, I still wasn’t that pumped to see it. But I was pleasantly surprised.
Once has a sweet and simple storyline. A Czech immigrant, known only to the audience as ‘Girl’ (Madeleine Jones), meets local Dubliner, ‘Guy’ (Tom Parsons), and is transfixed by his song. They bond over a shared love of music, collaborate, and start falling for each other, which is complicated because she has a husband back home, and he has a sort-of girlfriend in New York. So it’s a bit awks. But it’s told in such a simple, effortless way, that it’s easy to get swept up in this romance. Based on the snippets I had seen and heard, I wouldn’t have thought that there would be much humour involved in this show, but surprisingly there was quite a bit. Even ‘Girl’, the most straight-down-the-line character of all was able to milk some laughs with her direct attitude – “I don’t joke, I’m Czech”.
I was initially disappointed when the cast announcement was made for Once. I wasn’t familiar with the leads, and I was a bit bummed that they’d cast an Englishman as Guy. Tom Parson’s casting seemed like a bit of a kick in the guts to the local industry to me, which is full of many hard-working performers who would have killed to get their big break here. However, every role in Once calls for ‘quadruple’ threats (I don’t actually agree with that – they definitely don’t need to be dancers), meaning they all need to be well-versed in a musical instrument, as well as being able to sing and act. Very few musicals demand so much, and maybe there aren’t that many performers out there that can do it all. (Then again, maybe there are – I have no idea). I have to concede that Tom Parsons was very good, so I suppose I’ll allow it this one time. It was Madeleine Jones, however, who was the clear revelation in this production. Wow. She has a great voice, she plays the piano, she can do an accent that doesn’t make you roll your eyes, and she is genuinely affecting. Together, she and Parsons made a formidable pair.
The ensemble cast were fierce, and undeniably a very talented bunch. Amy Lehpamer absolutely shone as Reza – who would’ve thought that Sherrie from Rock of Ages was so good on the violin? She is fast becoming one of my favourite musical theatre performers. Colin Dean as Billy consistently cracked the audience up, and Anton Berezin’s Bank Manager’s ‘Abandoned in Bandon’ was gold. Brent Hill as Švec was entertaining as always, and Keegan Joyce as Andrej was gorgeous (check him out on Please Like Me). There was not a weak link in sight.
The staging is simple, yet effective. The entire show takes place in a pub setting, and audience members are invited onto the stage at interval where it becomes a real bar with cocktails inspired by the show. The cast gigs together on stage before the show formally begins, and some audience members are able to join them for this also. If I can just say one thing though it is this: God I HATE the Princess Theatre! Not only is it a serious fire hazard, it is a pain in the butt when a latecomer needs half a row to stand up to get to their seat. They also need more than three toilets in the stalls (I have spent many an interval waiting in the line). I couldn’t see half of the stage from my seat because of the lady’s head in front of me, and she DIDN’T EVEN HAVE A BIG HEAD AND SHE WASN’T TALL EITHER. I had to bop my head from side to side every five seconds to see through the gaps of the people in front of me, and I got a serious neck cramp. The woman next to me was doing the same thing and we were almost necking! To be honest this did ruin the show quite a bit for me. My friend said that he doubted it would be a very visual show, but I would have liked to have seen both Girl and Guy at the same time, rather than having to pick and choose who to look at. I like seeing the singer AND the other person reacting. Get yourself together, Princess and get yourself a major refurb. This is crap.
The music by Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová isn’t really my thing (apart from that one line in Falling Slowly – “I played the cards too late, now you’re gone” – I love that one line HARD!) I’m more of a rock opera or big jazzy contemporary Broadway kind of gal, so the toned down folksy style wasn’t to my personal tastes. Having said that, I could still appreciate the music, and I know that some audiences will absolutely adore it and it will resonate strongly with them. It also helped that the two leads had beautiful voices. I wasn’t such a fan of the choreography which was occasionally effective, but often cringe-worthy.
If you’re after a big showy musical with massive belts and high energy dance numbers, Once may not be the show for you. But what it does offer is a unique experience at the theatre, and it may possibly even please the ‘people who hate musicals’ (yes, those fools). I hope the Melbourne Theatre Company continue to include musicals in their programs and I see this show being a big hit for them. It didn’t go down as one of my personal favourites, and I will indeed only see it ONCE, but it was still very, very good.
Once is playing at the Princess Theatre until 9th November