Once: Bittersweet at Northern Stage

by Susan B. Apel

“Love is all very well, but in the hands of people it turns to soup,“ says a character from the play, Once.  It might be a jaded sort of remark, and one that cues an audience that something other than a fairy-tale ending awaits. At the end of the play, however, one could see soup (and love) differently, as something other than a hot mess.

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Once, a musical adapted from an earlier film of the same name, has just opened at Northern Stage. Its reputation, which preceded it from stints on Broadway and in London’s West End, is of a quiet, simple story, mercifully without extraneous bells and whistles (though Alexander Woodward’s eye-catching set composed of over 60 doors and windows is not without its symbolic depth.) Once is also touted for its music and its actor/musicians who do double duty as the production’s cast and on-stage orchestra.

Lily Talevski and Thom Miller. Photo by Kata Sasvari.

Northern Stage’s production begins on a Dublin street with Guy (Thom Miller), a musician who repairs vacuum cleaners to make ends barely meet. Girl (Lily Talevski) arrives with a faulty Hoover and a nose that quickly sniffs out Guy’s despair as well as his musical talent. Talevski portrays her character with an unlikely but effective pairing of Eastern European steel and a hopeful, never-say-die attitude. She is brassy but caring; he is woeful and taciturn. Act I provides some back story about how each of them had been disappointed in love. Because it’s Dublin, add some ear-catching Irish-style music (watch for Eric Love wielding a wicked cello), and boisterous choreography. Surely then one sees this as the tried-and-true recipe for a romantic comedy.

It is Act II that saves Once by adding texture and ripping it from the expected rom-com conventions. The production turns, beginning with a quiet scene by the ocean between Guy and Girl, in which space is created to allow more authentic, less quippy dialogue. The two go on to plot musical success, working through the knots such as financing, studio space, musicians behaving badly. Meanwhile, love grows, and Guy and Girl are not quite sure what to do about that. Girl gets Guy to dream big (New York?), but then what?

Once Cast. Photo by Kata Sasvari

The ensemble cast plays the comedy broadly at times, and the music with considerable skill. Rachel Mulcahy as Reza (featured photo, top) fiddles and vamps in equal measure. Stephen Lee Anderson as Da provides one of the evening’s most touching scenes as he and his son discuss Guy's future.

There’s a beautiful melancholy to the play’s consideration of the tenacity of dreams and of the fragility of love. In the end, the soup’s not always what’s ordered, or even expected, but it’s warm and tender all the same.

(Once is on stage until May 19. For more information or to purchase tickets, contact the Northern Stage box office online or at 802.296.7000. Featured photo, top: Rachel Mulcahy, Katie Fay Francis. Photo by Kata Sasvari.)


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 Susan B. Apel is a writer and retired law professor whose creative nonfiction and poetry have appeared in a variety of literary journals such as Vine Leaves, Best of Vine Leaves 2015, the Fredericksburg Literary and Art Review, Literary Mama, and Persimmon Tree. Her blog, ArtfulEdge, appears regularly on the DailyUV. She has published reviews in Art New England, Vermont Art Guide, and Boston’s The Arts Fuse. She is an Art Correspondent for The Woven Tale Press and a columnist for the newspaper, Vermont Woman. She lives in Lebanon, NH.


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