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Reviews, Stage, Theatre

Once theatre review (Eternity Playhouse, Sydney)

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What’s left to say about a sold-out run of a cherished musical in a production already heaped with praise?

Well, you’ll get no argument from me. Once is, unlike its characters to each other, easy to love. And this all-new production from Darlinghurst Theatre, a Sydney premiere, is a faithful and heartfelt adaptation.

After seeing the original Broadway run of this show in New York, and the Melbourne Theatre Company transfer in 2014, I can report Sydney audiences aren’t missing out on much. Director Richard Carroll (a knockout Calamity Jane) has created the same sticky floored, hoppy smelling Irish bar setting and assembled a ragtag bunch of multi-threat performers who not only nail the Irish brogue but, as Once calls for, sing and play every note of the score live on stage.

Which is to say, I suppose, there are few new ideas on Carroll’s stage. And it lacks the more hypnotic choreography of the original (movement director Amy Campbell gives it a more limited physical language). But the set (Hugh O’Connor) is terrific. The lighting (Peter Rubie), which does a lot of the heavy lifting, is sullenly effective. The musicality (Victoria Falconer, music director and fabulous on stage playing fiery Reza) is just as spirited, well mixed (Dylan Robinson, sound engineer) and utterly infectious in the relative intimacy of the Eternity Playhouse.

Once succeeds, rather than suffers, from how personal and specific it is. It makes you remember musical theatre can be better than it inevitably is.

Intimacy, of course, is not a word you readily associate with musical theatre. But Once isn’t your ordinary musical. It was based on a film, yes, as so many Broadway hits these days are, but writer/director John Carney’s 2007 micro-budget Irish indie was hardly a blockbuster. Through the strength of its songs, folksy earworms by Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová, it developed off Broadway with its modesty in tact. Not a high-kicking chorus line or – spoiler – saccharine happy ending in sight.

Like the American musical pieces that Once, in a sense, paved the way for – Fun Home, Dear Evan Hansen, Come From Away, The Band’s Visit, Hadestown – its preciousness was guarded for long enough to win hearts and make money. It succeeds, rather than suffers, from how personal and specific it is. It makes you remember musical theatre can be better than it inevitably is.

Once also exposes performers in harsh ways. Fortunately, each member of Carroll’s cast rises to the occasion.

Toby Francis (simply, “Guy”) and Stefanie Caccamo (“Girl”) lead the cast with certitude. For Francis, who’s played leads on bigger stages (Kinky Boots), that’s no surprise. This is a difficult sing, and his lower register perhaps isn’t as comfortable as his higher notes, but he’s nothing but charming as the sentimental troubadour nursing a broken heart through music. Caccamo, with fewer credits on the resume, is a real find, blending the character’s Czech asperity with loneliness and longing. They really do make beautiful music together.

Each member of the ensemble draws funny and fleshy portraits with limited scenes. Along with Falconer, Rupert Reid (Billy) and Drew Livingston (Bank Manager) stand out. Cameron Daddo is starry casting as Da; he gets just a couple of scenes but like the rest of the ensemble becomes an adept and energetic band member throughout the show.

With tickets all gone for the initial run, and a transfer to Wollongong later this month, Once will return to Sydney for another eight shows on July 30-August 4. You’d want to get a ticket quick.

It’s one for the troubadour in all of us.

Once plays the Eternity Playhouse until July 21 and July 30-August 4. The Merrigong Theatre Company season at the Illawarra Performing Arts Centre plays July 24-28

Photo by Robert Catto

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