Virginia Rep’s heartwarming “Once” is theatrical gold

John Carney’s film “Once” felt ubiquitous in 2007. Starring and with music by the Swell Season’s Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová, the film follows two street musicians in Dublin who form a musical and personal bond. The film’s hit single “Falling Slowly” won the Academy Award for best original song and the musical adaptation took home eight Tony Awards in 2012.

Still, because I hadn’t loved the movie, I didn’t expect to be blown away by “Once” the musical, now playing at Virginia Repertory Theatre. But I was wrong. I was absolutely blown away by this musical, this cast and this production. Director Nathaniel Shaw has created something immersive and special with “Once.” The show is romantic, funny, heartbreaking and heartwarming, with each theatrical element in harmony. Shaw’s pacing is perfect, and there isn’t a dull moment with this incredibly talented and entertaining cast.

Audiences who get to the theater early are treated with a rousing round of Irish song and dance and a chance to buy a beer from one of the vendors walking the aisles. Immediately, audiences are connected with the time and place, and the transition from this opening entertainment to the show itself is sly, swift and full of pathos. The lights dim, the ensemble retreats to the fringes of the stage and the story begins.

As the Girl and the Guy, respectively, Katherine Fried and Ken Allen Neely both give moving, nuanced performances. These two have palpable chemistry, both as romantic leads and as musicians. The ensemble works overtime in this show, dancing and singing and playing instruments and the roles. Standouts include Jon Patrick Penick, who is funny and endearing as Billy, the owner of a music shop in Dublin, Kelly Kennedy as the Girl’s mother, Baruska, and Christopher Seiler as the Guy’s father, Da. The cast members shine in this show, and they all work together seamlessly to create the tone and mood of each scene.

J. Michael Zygo’s musical direction is perfect, and the vocal harmonies in these songs are achingly beautiful. All of the songs are beautiful, but standouts for me included “If You Want Me,” “Gold (A Capella),” which was, for me, the best moment in this show, and, of course, “Falling Slowly.” Shaw’s choreography is lovely, adding to the magic of these songs.

William James Mohney’s set design is full of visual interest, including old concert posters and musical instruments lining the walls, and multiple levels onstage. Ruth Hedberg’s costume design helps to delineate characters, also adding to the visual interest of the show, and Joe Doran’s lighting is dramatic at just the right moments.

“Once” is theatrical gold. It will leave audiences feeling good, with more than a few songs to hum on the way home. At the risk of sounding cliched, it’s the kind of show that’s worth seeing more than once.

Virginia Repertory Theatre’s “Once” runs until March 3 at the November Theatre. Tickets cost $36 – $63.


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