“Once upon a time…” is the standard way the fantastic tales we all treasure commence; but what about those which, on the face of them, involve more seemingly ‘commonplace’ wonders like falling in love or pursuing your dreams? Such is the subject of “Once”—the melody-filled mini-saga of one “guy’s” life-changing involvement with one “girl”, that’s based on the Academy Award-winning movie of the same name.
Now, 3-D Theatricals, housed at “The Cerritos Center For The Performing Arts” in Cerritos CA, is celebrating the launch of their 11th season by giving this lush and melodious romance an innovative new ‘arena’ staging, where each member of the cast also serves simultaneously as the on-stage orchestra (As it happens, this is one of the few musicals to do so!) The winner of eight 2012 Tony Awards–including “Best Musical”, “Once” features a book by Enda Walsh (adapted from the screenplay by John Carney,) with music and lyrics by Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova, with additional songs by Fergus O’Farrell, Martin Lowe, Andy Taylor and Enda Walsh. Directed by Kari Hayter, the choreography for this new rendering is by Linda Love Simmons, while the Musical Direction is by David Lamoureux (–o also plays a supporting role to boot.) If you’re eager to find a theatrical experience comprised largely of softer, more intense–but 100% genuine and relatable moments, “Once” is definitely it!
Even with a decade of providing Southland theater enthusiasts with top-flight entertainment under their belts, this marks something of a distinguished achievement for 3-D Theatricals, as it’s categorically like nothing they’ve ever produced before! So different is it in fact, that this alone makes what is, on the face of it, a rather simple love story bold and compelling. Making for still more of a remarkable occasion, the theater at “The Cerritos Center” has been re-configured so that the playing space is a giant square floor at the core of the auditorium. (Here too, Cerritos Center is one of the only theaters in the country that can do this—and this is the first time it’s been adapted into a ‘theater-in-the-round’ in 18 years!) For variety, into this square has been built a revolving ‘inner-floor’ that rotates at decisive moments so as to suggest a change in time or location as required. Before the presentation begins, patrons are invited to come up and enjoy potations from the makeshift bar (–yes, a functioning bar there on stage,) while listening to lively Irish madrigals played by members of the band (most of whom will remain on-stage all through the ensuing goings-on.) Just prior to houselights dimming, everything clears off leaving only the musician/singers to continue harmonizing more Celtic-canticles. At times, the humor infused into Mr. Walsh’s book can be A) biting, B) frequently takes you by surprise, and C) is always canny and hilarious! Take for example when “Guy” is introduced on stage at a local club under the stage name “The Hoover Man”, one heckler calls out “This guy’s gonna suck!” Similarly, the score is overflowing with crisp harmonies that accentuate sincere (sometimes raw) emotion. It’s a pleasant reminder how music can, and often does, accomplish this like nothing else can. Moreover, even the scene changes incorporate sumptuous music as can only be heard from the smooth, dulcet blending of an accordion, an ocarina, a cello and TWO Irish fiddles!
Set in Dublin Ireland, the fundamental plot deals with the sudden relationship between a heartbroken guitarist (alluded only to as “Guy”) who has given up on love and music until an immigrant lass (likewise simply referred to as “Girl”) prompts him to keep his dream of becoming a professional recording artist alive. Their shared love of music draws the two together, and their friendship quickly evolves into a powerful but complicated–ultimately bittersweet, romance. In seeing this particular production, one thing is certain: this is patently NOT your ‘same old, same old’! Staged almost like a concert-version of a musical, things get going quickly though unassumingly when the man we’ll soon come to be acquainted with under the singular moniker of “Guy” strolls into the spotlight and launches into an almost-manic lament called “Leave”, which expresses his pain and feelings of loss over the recent breakup with his now ex-girlfriend, who left Dublin to return to New York City. Immediately after, “Girl” appears: “It’s very good,” she tells him, asking if he wrote it, then informing him that it was their destiny to meet; “Are you serious” he asks more than a little taken aback. “I’m always serious” she replies blankly; “I’m Czech.” The scene supposedly takes place in a vacuum-cleaner repair shop owned by “Guy’s” father, so she’s actually there to see if he can fix her broken Hoover-Vac: “It doesn’t suck,” she states, adding that although she can’t afford to pay him in cash, she can pay him with music (she too, is a musician, you see.)
Spying the sheet music to another one of his compositions, she asks if he’d play it with her, and although he protests at the outset, she takes his reticence in stride: “You will not die if you play this song with me,” she asserts. This exchange leads them into “Falling Slowly”—the score’s ‘signature’ tune (which also won the 2007 “Best Song” Academy Award for the film version.) As the stage slowly pivots, this develops into a breathtaking duet generating some delectable harmony from the pair (while also giving us a strong foreshadowing sense that these two ‘belong together’.) Urging him to NOT give up on his music (and himself,) she then undertakes the work of finding funding for, then a studio in which to record, a demo of his best work. By-and-by, she takes him to meet her family—a boisterous band (literally) including “Girl’s” small daughter, “Ivanka”. Given over to loud, enthusiastic debates over a favourite Czech “Soap Opera”, their squabbling gives rise to a splendid comic interlude inserted into a more serious series of episodes that comprise the plot. The levity is capped off when “Girl’s” mother “Baruska” recites a story in Czechoslovakian that’s simultaneously ‘translated’ by a handful of shrewdly placed monitors situated about the auditorium. (These “subtitles” will come into play once again—this time with a more crucial function: to fill us in on the ‘correct’ meaning of three important words, which “Girl” is hesitant to speak in English to “Guy”.)
Act Two finds them attempting to get organized enough to rehearse what they plan to record. One of the numbers, titled “When Your Mind’s Made Up”, also initiates small with just “Guy” crooning the opening verses before he’s joined by the entire company. Yet another rousing group effort, their combined voices add energy, strength and resolve to the refrain, as this rag-tag “band” finally comes together when it counts most. Shortly after, their a Capella version of “Gold” is breathtakingly restrained, bestowing a near-reverential quality and intensifying its effect, transforming it into more of a hymn than just a song. It also reveals (were there any doubt by this time) just how downright incredible a cast this is and what kind of vocal magic they, collectively, can conjure! As will happen though, a new day dawns and life…well, moves on. The ending is optimistic though, wherein the finale—a reprise of “Falling Slowly”, finds “Guy” relocated to NYC and with all indications that he’s got his foot solidly on the ladder to impending recording fame. This time however, the lyrics are made all the more meaningful because we conclusively grasp what went into them, and all that transpired in getting him where he, at last, is to perform them.
To risk speaking in any potentially ‘sexist’ generalities, Ms. Hayter was irrefutably the best directing choice for this piece bar none. It requires a wise feminine hand, and strong feminine insights, to be realized the very best way possible; for although it involves one broken man’s redemption and revitalization, it’s the determined woman behind him who’s driving the action and making all of it happen. Although precious little formal choreography is to be seen in this one, it most assuredly IS there–and is pretty spirited, gratis the fine work of Linda Love Simmons. Indeed, through her ingenuity, this musical ‘dances’ every jot as delightfully as it sings. A prime illustration unfolds when “Girl” goes into her melodic ‘musing’, “If You Want Me”, as she’s ‘backed’ by Leota Rhodes and Katherine Washington—all bathed in blue light, as the trio perform a lithe and sensuous adagio, symbolizing “Girl’s” ‘deeper, truer’ feelings regarding “Guy”. Toward the end of the first act, two supporting characters, “Billy” and “Reza” join together for a nifty turn at a couple of ‘Flamenco’ inspired maneuvers in the midst of “Girl’s” sultry chanson, “If You Want Me” (and the combined effect is nothing less than mesmeric!) Next, for the Act One closer, “Gold”, the whole ensemble even cavort in unison as they accompany themselves on their various instruments—never dropping a note nor missing a step! It’s a bona-fide Crowd-Pleaser and a dynamite way to go into Intermission. After the break, she incorporates a smooth, romantic little waltz for the two leads for Guy’s ‘dream solo’ “Sleeping”: “Are you still working? Still counting? You still buried in yourself? And how in the world did we come to have such an absent love?”
Granting us a genial (but now and again, even entrancing) portrait of a musical-sensation-to-be, Tom Frank is “Guy”. Gifted with a robust voice tinged with a folksy quality that recalls Joe Cocker or Cat Stevens at their foremost, much of the score benefits significantly from Tom’s full-voiced, resounding treatment, which he uses to impress right off with his initial effort “Leave”. Giving us a bit of background as to who “Guy” is and what he’s been through, in it we learn that, having recently been left by his girl, we find a man shaken and unsure of himself, questioning what he believed he wanted out of life (—causing him to be, not inconsequently, fairly embittered.) Nonetheless, if this is an ‘audition’ for our approval admiration and support, Frank emphatically passes it! Shortly after, he triumphs again with the score’s most ‘renowned’ “stand out”, “Falling Slowly” giving just the right touch of restraint. He also excels with the more blithesome (if brief) offering, “Brokenhearted Hoover Fixer Sucker Guy” (Humorous and offbeat? Yep, but try telling that to your toes that are sure to be busy tapping along!) As an actor, Frank’s greatest feat perhaps, is taking on a protagonist who (at least early on) is passive and unmotivated– and in spite of all this, managing to get us firmly behind him, actively rooting for his prosperity whether as a singer or as a man in love.
As the ‘other half’ of this star-crossed equation, Aurora Florence is stunning as “Girl”. Her astute and majestic performance is what ties everything together and keeps the narrative going (SHE is the ‘Actor’—HE is the ‘Re-Actor’.)
In her adept hands, “Girl” has an enthusiastic way of looking at things that often belies her more frank, straightforward way of delivering her thoughts and observations; but Ms. Florence is not only a sublime actress with solid comic timing though, her piano playing is immaculate—as evidenced right at the start with her opening piece by Mendelssohn. Florence also has a refreshing lilt to her vocal styling reminiscent of “The Pretender’s” lead, Chrissie Hynde, which also suits these songs decidedly well. Her soliloquy, “If You Want Me”, as “Girl” tries to sort out her intensifying feelings for “Guy”, is a luminous moment for her in a performance bubbling over with such moments. Her second act reflection, “The Hill” is haunting and pensive, containing what are arguably among the best lyrics written for any musical within the last decade or so: “I’m sitting here weeping, while the hours pass so slow; and I know in the morning, I’ll have to let you go…and you’ll be just a man once I used to know.” Infusing every verse with the perfect introspective shading, “Girl” comprehends what must happen. Add to it, how She mightily sings it through her tears, and mere “Brilliant” falls pitifully way too far short to describe how impactful her rendition is, (–but this absolutely rates among her finest moments on stage here!)
“Once” is also unique in that each member of what would be considered the ‘ensemble’ or ‘chorus” contribute immensely toward the play’s overall success. This means essentially, that everyone has their individual moments to standout, hence, everyone seen conveys commendable support. That acknowledged, there are several among them who do make their mark at different intervals. These include Chuck McLane as a big, burly bloke named “Billy”, who is kind of “Guy’s” rival for “Girls” affections (“Lonely is a big part of the world nowadays” he breezes to “Guy” at one point.) McLane also has a brawny voice which he verifies even before the proceedings officially kick off, while singing a selection of hearty Hibernian ballads as part of the ‘pre-show’. Once underway, given “Billy’s” more ‘progressive’ (I.E. non-capitalist) economic views, we discover that the old boy isn’t too fond that they’ve asked the same “Bank Manager” (who helped finance their recording venture,) to join the fledgling would-be band as well, leading to an array of comic skirmishes. Scott Waara too, disburses laudable support as “Guy’s” “Da” (Irish for “Dad”.) A grieving widower, “Da” tries to be sympathetic to his son’s emotional plight, eventually supplying him with much-needed wherewithal to pursue his dream of a ‘real’ music career. What’s more, as a musician, Waara can also claim a plethora of well-cadenced victories in his own right–nimbly plucking out snazzy rhythmic phrases or classy counter obbligatos on his mandolin! Plenty of affable support is also furnished throughout by Cynthia Marty, as “Girl’s” ever patient and loving mother “Baruska”. Marty especially shines when relating her story-song, “Ej, Pada, Pada, Rosicka”—handing over a dose of good, old fashioned “Old World” wisdom—and doing it all in Czechoslovakian!
Meanwhile, Katherine Washington also astounds–both as “Girl’s” wild-child, barfly buddy, “Reza” (—whose dead-set on landing an Irish “guy” for herself,) along with being a talented violinist, who rosins up her bow to dispense that quintessential “Irish” tempo that helps make much of the music we get the thrill of hearing sizzle! By the same token, Andy Taylor is comparably exceptional, recreating his role from the original Broadway cast as “The Bank Manager”. He makes the most of his unexpected “solo”—”Abandoned At Bandon”, through which our heroes discover that he too, has hidden dreams of becoming the ‘next’ “Elvis” or “Bono” once he unveils his guitar (which he “just happens” to always keep near at hand!)
“When your mind’s made up” (–to be thoroughly entertained) 3-D Theatricals’ has the show to see—at “Once”! Upon previewing on Friday, October 11th, “Once” opened on Saturday, October 12th, where it will play through Sunday, October 27th, 2019 at “The Cerritos Center For The Performing Arts” located at 18000 Park Plaza Drive, in Cerritos, California. Showtimes are Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 PM, with Matinees on Saturday and Sunday at 2:00 PM, with an added Thursday evening performance on October 24th, at 7:30 PM. Tickets may be obtained online by logging onto: www.Cerritoscenter.com or www.3dtheatricals.org ; via phone, by calling the Theater Box-Office at (562) 916-8500, between the hours of 10:00 AM –6:00 PM, Tuesday through Friday; 12:00 PM – 4:00 PM on Saturdays. The Box-Office at “The Cerritos Center For The Performing Art” is also open two hours prior to weekday and Saturday performances; one hour prior to Sunday performances. (Group and Student discounts are available, while special discounted “Box-Seats” are also being offered on a presale basis.)
Production Still By “Caught In The Moment Photography” (https:/www.caughtinthemoment.com) Courtesy Of Jim Byk & Shane Marshall Brown (www.thepressroomnyc.com ) and “3-D Theatricals”; Special Thanks To Jim Byk, Shane Marshall Brown, T.J. Dawson, Jeanette Dawson, Gretchen Dawson, Daniel Dawson, Kari Hayter, Linda Love Simmons, David Lamoureux–And To The Cast And Crew Of “3-D Theatricals” 2019 Production Of “Once, The Musical” For Making This Story Possible.