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Jane Enkin

Jane Enkin Review the Play ONCE at RMTC February 15 to March 10, 2018

by Jane Enkin, February 18, 2018


Take your seats early when you come to Once. The gloriously high-energy pre-show jam is definitely one of the highlights of the play. We hear Irish fiddle tunes, comic songs and thrilling Eastern European harmonies, all delivered with stomping, drumming and great energy. The scene really does look like a jam at a cozy bar, with the musicians turned toward each other, joining in spontaneously for their own delight.


We then meet the unnamed Guy, who is giving up on music and perhaps on everything. “His life has stopped,” observes the Girl. She sees this immediately at their first chance encounter, as Guy literally abandons his guitar on the street and walks away. She takes him on as a project, and works to energize and revive him. He is Irish, and melancholy, she is Czech, and determined and cheerful. There is wonderful chemistry between them emotionally, but, as the saying goes, it's complicated. Their musical chemistry clicks – she commands him to retrieve his guitar, she plays the piano, and they harmonize beautifully on the big hit from the movie this musical is based on, the lovely Falling Slowly.


In a style that is fantastic throughout the show, the other musicians on stage drift into the scene, building a rich sound with cello, fiddles, accordion and other instruments. This ensemble music is the real strength of Once, the aspect that has me wanting to experience the play again. After all the terrific stomping and string-playing, one of the most moving and musically beautiful scenes came when the ensemble sang the tender song Gold a capella, in rich harmony.


You won't see Broadway style dancing in Once, although there are scenes with evocative abstract movement. The music and lyrics are also not Broadway style but singer-songwriter pieces. Mostly I couldn't catch the lyrics, but looking them up on line now I see it doesn't matter much; they are mood-setting poetry rather than songs that might advance the narrative or express direct thoughts.


Here is a sample from Gold:

I'm walking on moon beams
And staring out to sea
And if a door be closed
Then a row of homes start building
And tear your curtains down
For sunlight is like gold


The main set is a lovingly detailed, worn old bar. With the minimal moving about of chairs and tables, the actors establish through dialogue where they are – out on the street, in shops, in a recording studio, and charmingly, in the girls apartment. There her wacky Czech room-mates have some of the funniest shtick in the show, trying out on the Guy the English they've learned by watching soaps.


All the singing instrumentalist actors play quirky individual characters. Guitar- playing Daniel Williston is funny and powerful as the volatile music shop owner, who feels just a little too much about everything. Accordionist Jane Miller has a very funny deadpan turn as the Girl's very Czech mother. Alicia Toner is the awesomely sexy and talented Czech fiddle-player Reza.


Musically, Jeremy Walmsley had me puzzled. It took some suspension of disbelief to think of him as a really exceptional folksinger and guitarist, as all the characters consider him (I think I'm spoiled by the overwhelming amount of folk talent in Winnipeg); I didn't enjoy his style. It's important to the plot, however, that the Girl doesn't focus on him because of his talent, but because she believes he has the potential to reclaim his life and rise above his depression and loss. Walmsley expresses those feelings beautifully, with an affecting balance of cynicism and hopefulness. He is passionate during songs and tender in his interactions, compelling throughout the play. It was a delight to hear, at the end of the play, his full, rich voice.


Amanda LeBlanc took full advantage of the Girl's big ballads If You Want Me and The Hill with her soaring, gorgeous voice. (The script is built around the Guy's singing, but I would have preferred to have heard more of the Girl's. ) LeBlanc played the character's assertive nature to great comic effect, and brought rich emotion to her scenes of love and longing.


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