music by Glen Hansard & Markéta Irglová
book by Edna Walsh
Directed by Terrence J. Nolen
David P. Gordon, scenic design
Thom Weaver, lighting design
Elizabeth Atkinson, sound design
Ryan Touhey, musical director
Arden Theater, 40 n. 2nd St. Philadelphia
extended through Oct. 28
Once, the musical is based on a hit indie movie of the same name, about the real life musical journey of singer-songwriter Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova. Their central ballad “Falling Slowly” won the Academy Award for best song and their Broadway adaptation of film story picked up 8 Tony Awards including for best musical, followed by a hit National Tour.
The National Tour boasted a top notch cast and which played to capacity crowds at the Academy of Music, but its B’way veneer and stylizations traded off some of the indie spirit of the movie.
The artistic intimacy of Hansard and Irglová’s music is front and center in director Terrence J. Nolen’s scaled down production at the Arden Theater. The book by Edna Walsh won a Tony, has a quieter theatricality and Nolen’s cast of wonderful singer-actor-musicians conjure that indie fire.
The story unfolds in the pubs and on the streets of Dublin as Guy, a talented Irish singer-songwriter, bitter over a recent breakup with his girlfriend, who is in the US. A Czech young woman, toting a vacuum cleaner happens in on this scene and hears him sing ‘Leave.’ He tells her of his plans to give up being on his dream of being a singer/songwriter and be content fixing Hoovers repairs working in his dad’s appliance store.
They immediately start fighting over his plans to give up and she suddenly is at the piano playing his charts to Falling Slowly. Of course the sparks are flying as they fall hard for each other, but they bury their feelings and concentrate on recording a demo-disc with their ragtag pickup band.
Turns out she is a Czech émigré who also write songs, plays piano and works a musicstore. She is temporarily separated from her husband and raising her daughter Ivanka with the help of her mother. The Guy is accepted in the Czech musical community and cross-culturalism cues a lot of great music, meanwhile the sparks continue to fly between the songwriters, as their previous complicated relationships keep them apart.
David P. Gordon’s design of Irish pub atmospherics, and its neighborhood environs keep giving, especially in tandem with Thom Weaver’s masterful lighting design. Nolen eventually uses every corner of the Arden’s all around configuration with the characters making music everywhere in the space and wrapping the audience in immersive musical theater magic all at Once.
The émigrés speak both in English (with Czech supertitles projected on the walls) appear family and friends, Nolen orchestrates this fine ensemble both dramatically and musically.
Scott Greer is the big hearted music store owner Billy, who has shed 30 pounds busting karate moves (to bounce anyone who gets out of line) and is also game enough to tango with rocker violinist Reza, played with rocker swagger by Kendall Hartse.
Alex Bechtel’s Andrej, the proud barista who is pumped to shed his uniform for his musical dreams. Lucia Brady is the stage ready Ivanka who can play a mean fiddle just like her grandma Baruska, played by Emily Mikesell, the knowing matriarch who is ready to cook up old world meals at any moment as well as dish out seasoned wisdom.
Ken Allen Neely is an rustic Irish crooner with a wounded emotional reserve a guitar chord away from baring his soul. Kathleen Fried can riff on Mendelssohn’s piano concerto and also possesses a gold center voice with lilting upper tremolo). Fried and Neely’s duets are intoxicatingly romantic.
Engaging choreography by Steve Pacek, with spirited dances while the cast members are also rigorous playing their string instruments, especially the folkloric dance choreography in the urban- gypsy number Gold.
Some chamber music via string accompaniment, with Fried on piano and soulful vocal on ‘The Hill.’ In that number and throughout much credit also goes to Ryan Touhey for muscled musical direction of the score, rendering its full Irish, Czech and urban authenticity. & kudos as well to Elizabeth Atkinson sustaining acoustical power and nuance to all of the orchestration.