Theater Review: ONCE (Laguna Playhouse)

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by William C. on March 13, 2023

in Theater-Los Angeles,Theater-Regional


Good theater allows audiences to see the world from the eyes of the creators. In this triumphant production of Once, which opened last night March 12 at Laguna Playhouse, we are invited into the world of a downtrodden buttery-voiced Irish man and a struggling single immigrant mother. A whirlwind of activities takes place in this world, but it is not all bad. Adapted by Enda Walsh from John Carney’s screenplay of Once, the country is filled with poverty, joy, generosity, and unattainable love.

If you have watched the movie, trust me, this is better. While I love the rawness of the film, in which the songs were written, performed, and acted out by Glen Hansard, and Markéta Irglová, this is a fleshed-out vision with better pacing and craft. Most importantly, the generosity of the story was not lost in the stage adaptation. In fact, the emotional journey of seeing the band coming together slowly is far more emotionally satisfying. The 2007 Oscar-winning song “Falling Slowly” remains in the stage version.

While busking, a handsome guitar-player and singer (“Guy,” played by Keaton Eckhoff) lures a Czech Mendelssohn-loving pianist (“Girl,” played by Grace Belt) with his music. 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. Daring to dream big, they take out a hefty loan, put together a ragtag band, and cut a demo for Guy to take to New York to make it big. The sexual tension between the duo is electric — throughout the play, you may want to scream, “Just kiss each other already.”

Is the story perfect? No. Even with Walsh’s solid, funny, surprising book, the narrative could be more cohesive and, at times, more exciting. A bit cheesy, yes, but I am seriously ignoring my lactose intolerance and diving into this massive pot of Irish fondue. And with a combination of lush orchestrations, rich harmonies, and sobering lyrics, you can’t help but open your heart to receive the pain and joy of Guy’s situation, abetted by flowing melodies and joyous voices.

Our two leads are enchanting. I often had to remind myself that they are not a real couple. And, boy, can they both sing. They perfectly nailed two-part harmony while playing piano and guitar. I mean, seriously, music theater rarely gets this just right. 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. The uber-talented actor-musicians on stage work together like a real band. With Julia Hoffmann’s musical direction and Paula Sloan’s musical staging, they sing in close harmony, move, act, and create magic on stage. And when the ensemble joins in, you palpably feel the synergy in the air. Yep. that’s the hair on the back of my neck sticking straight-up.

I want to give a special mention to Caitlin Ort, who carried a cello while performing and dancing on stage. I repeat again, A damn CELLO! Grant Alexander Brown‘s portrayal of Andrej, a fast food worker in the band, is energetic and gives a much-needed lightness to the story. I also noticed the massive talent that is Morgan Hollingsworth, who I tracked playing three different instruments throughout the play. It is unfair how talented and good-looking this group of actor-musicians is, and somehow Laguna Playhouse found them.

The design team did a fantastic job. Matthew Herman’s scenic design is a marriage of function and design. The best part is that it is a functional bar that the patrons were invited on stage to partake in during the intermission. William Gibbons-Brown’s lighting design is stunning. Many poignant emotional highlights are accentuated by the rightly timed specials, especially the vivid blues during Ms. Belt’s solo. A good musical is nothing without a good sound designer. Ian Wehrle does a fantastic job. It is occasionally too overfilled with reverb, which masks the tender voices of our cast. Still, it did lend to the dramatic flair that director Steve Steiner seeks.

There you have it. I highly recommend you make the lovely drive down to Laguna Playhouse to catch this production. Planning a rabble-rousing St. Patrick’s Day? Why not add this delightful musical to immerse yourself in authentic-sounding Irish music?

photos by Jason Niedle

Laguna Playhouse
606 Laguna Canyon Drive in Laguna Beach, CA
ends on March 26, 2023
for tickets, call 949.497.2787 x1 or visit Laguna Playhouse

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