Once – Review by Geary Danihy

In the opening week of a live-theater production it’s normal to see some rough edges, minor problems with blocking or line delivery that the director, via notes or additional rehearsals, seeks to smooth out. Well, Ben Hope, the director of the delightful “Once” currently playing at the Ivoryton Playhouse, can put his feet up and relax, for this highly polished production is just about near-perfect. From the opening musical numbers that greet the audience as it enters the house to the final, heart-touching reprise of “Falling Slowly,” just about everything works, and works to perfection. This modern-day, somewhat bittersweet fairy tale (Yes, it’s “Once upon a time…” with a modern twist) is a show that simply embraces the audience from curtain to curtain.

The fairy-tale quality of the show is established immediately, for the cast (save for the leads) is out front for all to see and performs several musical numbers that are either vivacious or contemplative. This approach is appropriate, for the show is as much about the joy of creating music as it is about boy meets girl. We then have the appearance of the characters who will be swept up in the fairy tale: the Guy (Sam Sherwood) and the Girl (Katie Barton). That’s how they are named – just a guy and a girl who happen, serendipitously, to meet on a street in Dublin, he a somewhat despairing musician who’s doing some corner-singing for small change and she a Czech émigré with a dysfunctional Hoover vacuum cleaner. This meeting occurs while the rest of the cast, all who play instruments, are sitting stage right and left and who will, at various moments, facilitate the growing relationship between the guy and the girl.

Okay, so I’ve held off as long as possible (two paragraphs worth), but here comes the fulsome praise: Katie Barton as the Girl is, well, mesmerizing. Whether she’s playing the piano, singing, or creating a character, complete with a Czech accent that has her bite into her dialogue, Girl appears to be as tough as nails but hides a heart that aches, and in doing so Barton simply owns the stage. In the fairy-tale world of the show within a show, she is the driving force, compelling the Guy, ably acted by Sherwood, to ditch his despair and again begin to dream.

As Barton glistens, there are numerous standout moments. In a scene in which the Girl forces the Guy to perform on a stage, the other cast members (the audience for the open mike show) slowly stand and begin, one after another, to respond to his song, playing instruments and then dancing in unison (compliments of Hope, who also choreographed the show). It’s a giddy moment, a delightful visual response to a performance that, I would think, tempted the audience to also rise and gambol.

In another scene, Girl wants Guy to record his music, but renting a studio costs money, so they go to a bank to get a loan. They meet with a bank manager (Andreina Kasper) who is at first skeptical. After Guy sings for her she hauls out a cello, reveals that she, herself, is a songwriter, and proceeds to murder her own composition, “Abandoned in Bandon.” When she finishes, all Guy and Girl can do is stare at her in amazement. Finally, Girl gives her a terse piece of advice.

The fairy-tale, quasi-romance of Guy and Girl is framed by the musicians – the rest of the cast – and they are supremely accomplished and, well, appear to take great joy in creating music. Since the show is based on a film written and directed by John Carney, there’s a certain filmic quality to this framing, not the least of which is that there is a “film score” that permeates the show. In several numbers that feature Guy and Girl singing, violins softly rise, percussion provides a back-beat, and guitars and a cello add their “voices.” Never once (at least for one audience member) does the question arise: “Where is this music coming from?” It’s all of a piece and integrated so artistically that it enhances the overall “Once upon a time…” trope, giving the audience the feel that they are watching events unfold in a musical Wonderland.

A confession. At intermission I pondered whether this was a true Ivoryton production or whether it was a co-production with another company – that the cast might have been imported and been together for months. Such is not the case…and all I can say is “Wow!” Here we are in the hinterlands of Connecticut seeing a production that is worthy of a Broadway stage, a production that boasts talent galore and seems to take delight in its very being. What is more intriguing, and impressive, is that this is Hope’s directorial debut. Yes, he played the role of Guy on Broadway, but that’s not always a guarantee that an actor can make the transition to the responsibilities of director, that he can envision the production not from his own character’s point of view but from a very different perspective – the whole rather than the part, if you will. That “Once” is so polished is a testament that Hope is fully capable of making the actor-director transition.

A final accolade. What Ivoryton has boarded makes me, a critic who got a free ticket to see the show, want to spend my hard-earned money to see the show again, if only to bask in the show’s exuberance and to once again watch Barton work her magic. There was a packed house at the matinee I attended and I only hope that the seats will continue to be filled throughout the show’s run, for it’s one of the best shows – and that’s saying a lot – that this venerable theater has ever produced.

“Once” runs through October 14. For tickets or more information call 860-767-7318 or go to www.ivorytonplayhouse.org.