Theater Review ONCE (3-D Theatricals in Cerritos)

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by Tony Frankel on October 21, 2019

in Theater-Los Angeles,Theater-Regional

ONCE AGAIN, PLEASE

Ironically, the real-life love affair between collaborators Glen Hasard, an Irish singer-songwriter, and Markéta Irglová, a Czech songwriter, fizzled after John Carney’s 2007 film became a success (well, it’s not called Once for nothing). But the Tony-triumphant 2011 stage musical, now offered in 3-D Theatrical’s soaring, enchanting, and bittersweet yet uplifting production, opens its heart to the point that you feel like you’re falling (slowly) in love with a best friend. Given Enda Walsh’s solid, funny, surprising book (one of my favorites in decades), this adaptation is an example of the latter improving on life. Aside from some sound issues — which has plagued all five revivals of Once that I’ve seen — you can’t do better than this production. Impeccably cast with a winning baker’s dozen — who act, sing and play multiple instruments — and inventive, fluid staging in-the-round by director Kari Hayter and choreographer Linda Love Simmons, seeing this Once just once may not be enough.

Once depicts an unlikely partnership where music sets the measures. Here the generically named “Guy” (the vulnerably hot Tom Frank, astoundingly making his musical theater debut), a self-denigrating dreamer who’s in lopsided and unrequited love with a colleen who escaped to New York, is about to give up on music as well as love; he’ll settle for repairing vacuum cleaners at the North Strand shop owned by his da (the always remarkable Tony-winner Scott Waara). It’s time, the busking Guy sings, to “Leave.”

Suddenly and sweetly, a kind of earthly Muse intervenes in the person of a young Czech woman named “Girl” (a beguiling, truly lovely Aurora Florence). This Mendelssohn-loving pianist refuses to let him put his guitar, and his genius, away. Unstoppably honest (“I’m Czech; we’re honest”), Girl dares him to fulfill his destiny — a fate that may or may not bring them passion as well as fame. In any case, their first song, the enthralling “Falling Slowly,” is a promissory note that must be redeemed: If he repairs her vacuum cleaner, she’ll play for him (read: fix his life).

But it’s complicated: Guy already lost his heart to an expat lover, and Girl is married with her husband back in Czechoslovakia. Still, the urge to make songs creates a beautiful bond. The collaborators get a loan from an anti-capitalist banker — who’s also a frustrated cello-playing rocker (Andy Taylor from the original Broadway production) — so that Guy, now known as “The Hoover Man,” can record a demo album five days after meeting Girl, while discovering she is just as much a reason to compose as the one who got away.

Yet the inspiration they provide doesn’t necessarily equal or trigger love: “Falling Slowly” takes on a sad new meaning. Impressively, this story is honest enough not to succumb to an audience’s wishful thinking. You can’t write yourself into a relationship, no matter how persuasive the album you create. (That’s just what happened to Hansard and Irglová, although the duo remain besties and still perform together.)

Hayter’s Story Theater-like direction has the actors inventing locations on set designer Stephen Gifford’s raised stage, complete with a turntable! Jean-Yves lighting helps like a fourteenth character to help highlight emotional moments, and Music Director David Lamoureux (hysterical as the in-your-face Czech drum player, Svec) has brought out the best from this best.

Yes, this production could absolutely be on Broadway, but Cricket Myers’ sound, while making the large and gorgeous Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts seem even more intimate, failed to do any more than amplify. A slight echo mixed with sloppy accents (yes, I know it sounds authentic, but we want to hear every word) sadly garbles language; it’s amazing the show’s impact given so many unintelligible lyrics. Admittedly, we get more used to the brogue as the show progresses, but this egregious situation could most likely be fixed with clipped diction, a dialect coach, and volume on instruments lowered even more during singing. The transformation of the theater at Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts is remarkable, and the only views which seemed problematic for the audience were in the first five rows facing one side of the stage as there was no rake for those seats.

With equal intensity, Florence and Frank (whose characters suggest a kind of reverse Pygmalion where the woman perfects the man) generate erotic and artistic excitement. They’re buoyantly backed up by a crazy coterie of Irish eccentrics and Czech confidants, made up of one of the most generous, loving, and earthy ensembles on record. Even the two short appearances of alluring violinist Leota Rhodes as the Ex-Girlfriend left an indelible mark. Sadly it’s a short run; do not miss this triumphant event.

photos Caught in the Moment Photography

Once
3-D Theatricals
Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts
12700 Center Court Drive in Cerritos
ends on October 27, 2019
for tickets, call 714.589.2770 or visit 3-D

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