ASHLAND — Many things come together to make “Once: The Musical,” a show that strikes all the right nerves. The acting is strong, the staging and choreography are dynamic. But what gives “Once” its raw power and emotion are it songs, songs sung with heartfelt and sometimes heartbreaking passion.
“Once: the Musical,” based on the movie and Broadway play of the same name, opened last weekend at the Oregon Cabaret Theatre in Ashland. A lonely young Dublin street musician, identified only as “Guy,” is anguished because his girlfriend has moved to New York. He’s about to abandon his musical dreams when he meets a frisky, delightfully stubborn young Czech woman, identified only as “Girl,” who’s intrigued after hearing one of his stirringly bittersweet songs.
But back up a bit. The show actually begins before it starts. It’s worth arriving early because cast members set the mood, arriving one-by-one on stage to perform. A solo guitarist is joined by a pianist and, again one-at-a-time, by others with violins, an accordion, drums, a harmonica and more guitars who sing and perform music that gradually shifts from sweet and lovely to foot-stomping fun. There’s some mood-setting humor — as one musician with his Irish brogue tells the audience, “If we get talking too fast you’ll have to listen a little quicker.”
When the Guy joins in, “Once” begins. The melancholy mood is set as he croons “Leave,” an intensely powerful song about his lost love. Like other tunes, “Leave” features music and lyrics by the stars of the movie, Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová, including the heart-tugging Academy Award-winning “Falling Slowly,” another song sung with conviction, with lyrics that hurt and ache.
But it’s not all about broken hearts. Ditties like “Broken Hearted Hoover Fixer Sucker Guy” and perky tunes by other cast members are deftly blended in, providing laughs and chuckles.
But the literal heart of the show are the often tear-inducing songs soulfully performed by Guy and Girl, including, “If You Want Me,” “The Moon,” “Say It To Me Now,” and “When Your Mind’s Made Up.” The opening act ends with a spicy but lovely “Gold,” featuring all 10 actors singing and playing in a beautifully staged and choreographed scene. The second act, which reprises several songs, ends too soon with a reprise of “Falling Slowly.”
Christopher Fordinal, who was Elvis in “Million Dollar Quartet,” dazzles as Guy, while Olivia Nice is perfect as the pretty but not beautiful, provocatively inquisitive Gal. Fordinal is a dynamic singer and guitarist while Nice is more than nice with her deceptively powerful voice and understated but precise performance. They’re backed by a strong ensemble cast that includes delightful scenes featuring Cat Peterson, Chuck McLane and Livia Genise.
Director-choreographer Valerie Rachelle and her production staff have once again created a production that resonates because of many factors — its mood-enhancing lighting, staging and dazzling choreography.
“Once” is a musical worth seeing more than once.