I saw the touring version of Once some years ago and came away unimpressed with what struck me as a meaningless puff of pink-tinged sentimentality. Then again, what can you expect when the young lovers in a musical are cutely named Guy and Girl? But it turns out the quality and focus of a production make a huge difference. The Miners Alley version of Once, staged by Len Matheo, is a rush, a blast — a burst of pure exhilaration.
The story: A dispirited Irish musician who lives above his father’s failing shop and, because of a recent breakup with his girlfriend, has given up music entirely, encounters an oddly insistent young Czech woman with a broken vacuum cleaner — “It doesn’t suck” — which she persuades him to fix. She seizes a composition he has kept folded in his pocket, plays it, and tries to persuade him not to give up his art. Eventually, they’re composing and singing together, and he’s visited her Czech family (some comic cultural misunderstandings here) and met her young daughter, Ivonka (a lovely young Morgan Murphy, with truly Czech cheekbones, though she isn’t Czech). But Guy still has feelings for the absent ex-girlfriend, and Girl has a corrosive secret, and all the emotional swings of new love naturally follow.
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In this musical, the actors themselves are the orchestra, their characters moving center stage at times to play and sing, at other times moving back to the sides, where they watch and accompany the action. This means that every single performer must be a triple threat — able to sing, dance and act — and it also means the music is always front and center. Somehow Matheo found an entire troupe of multi-talented people, and under the direction of David Nehls, the music is performed with a passion and energy that washes away all hints of sentimentality. All of the playing is good or better, and two musicians simply electrify. One is the stylishly eccentric, high-stepping violinist Allegra Ludwig Michael, who also plays Reza. You can’t take your eyes off her when she’s on stage, and when she’s off, you want her to come back. Except that you can also watch Nelson Walker playing both the Emcee and the cello. He holds the instrument up and off the floor — a choice that puzzled me so much I actually whispered to my friend, “That is a cello, right?” Not only is Walker a talented musician, but the joy he feels in playing and performing is so palpable you find yourself grinning through his every move.
But there are so many moments of pure pleasure, and every single performer contributes his or her share of them. We can’t mention everyone, but you can’t help noticing Joel Abelson, tall and strong, with a powerful voice to match and an absolutely huge comedic presence; Katie Jackson’s pretty, charming Ex-Girlfriend; and Damon Guerrasio, whose Svec constantly comes dangerously close to parody — remember Dan Aykroyd and Steve Martin as the Festrunk Brothers — “two wild and crazy guys,” in those long-ago Saturday Night Live sketches? But Guerrasio steers clear of that dangerous brink while still managing to make his smallest gestures and subtlest changes of expression wonderfully funny.
Much hinges on the performances of the leads, and John Hauser, one of the best actors around, doesn’t disappoint with his moving and convincing portrayal of Guy. One of my problems with the touring production was that I didn’t believe for a minute that its Girl was actually Czech. This made the repeated joke “I’m always serious. I’m Czech” sound more snidely parodistic than funny. Here, Carmen Vreeman Shedd owns the role. I really couldn’t tell you if her understated but convincing accent is entirely accurate because she’s so charming and she sings and plays the piano so beautifully that the cranky old critic in my head, the one that’s always looking for flaws, simply subsided muttering into the shadows. As well he should have. This Once provided one of the happiest, loveliest and most life-affirming evenings I’ve spent in a theater — and I hope you’ll choose to enjoy it, too.
Once has been extended through October 18 at Miner's Alley Playhouse, 1224 Washington Avenue in Golden. For tickets, $17 to $38, and more information, call 303-935-3044 or go to the Miners Alley website.