It was a warm-hearted night at ASB Waterfront Theatre last night with a musical new to these shores - Once presented by Peach Theatre Company. Right from the get-go this was not usual musical theatre form, but more like stepping into an Irish pub with a singalong in full swing. The actors appeared amongst the audience wielding guitars, banjos, even a cello. Brilliant start to the night, the crowd gladly joined in, singing and stamping. I even wondered if the story would start to unfold... we were having so much fun. Not often you get to have a jam in a 675-capacity theatre.
Originally from a book by Enda Walsh, “Once” became a motion picture in 2007 written and directed by John Carney. With a tiny budget and humble beginnings, this Irish story exploded into fame even winning Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová an Oscar for Best Original Song. In a way, it is the miracle of the song “Falling Slowly” that distils the secret of this musical’s success. It is from this genuine simplicity and heart that is the piece’s greatest strength.
... the cast camaraderie is one of the best you’ll see, bringing spontaneity and genuineness to the story.
The teamwork of the cast really made this piece happen. There’s not really too much of a plot and it’s not the usual elaborate staging in a musical theatre - there’s no Mary Poppins swinging from the top of the Civic in this number. The set and lighting and staging were simple and effective. There was no need to create location-style sets, rather it’s shaping was through the actors framing and flowing with the action.
And the cast camaraderie is one of the best you’ll see, bringing spontaneity and genuineness to the story. Even though last night was a preview, this cast seemed relaxed and the shaping flowed seamlessly. Hats off to director Jesse Peach and producer Mark Kelliher and team for creating this happy mood.
Not only nice stage flow but the performers were abundantly musically gifted. Some great ensemble singing as well as a range of instruments creating the ‘orchestra’ from electric bass to piano to strings. Music director Josh Clark allowed solo moments to shine and ensemble sound to build depth. The interplay of improvisation amongst the ensemble was almost flawless woven into solo and back again.
With the backing of this great team, two actors shone in solo roles. As “The Guy” Adam Ogle brought intensity and vulnerability to the character. He has a huge experience on guitar, his expressive vocal style even retained the Irish accent. It’s a big show to carry and he may not have trodden theatre boards too often but Ogle created a dignified and genuine centre to the show.
As “The Girl” Lisa Crawley was stronger than her film counterpart, painting an Eastern European character that had grit and determination. Her Czech accent was convincing but I couldn’t help feeling she held herself almost too tightly buttoned. Vocally she delivered a stunning second song “The Hill” with string trio and played a beautiful piano accompaniment.
This is a piece that demands actors who can sing but also play instruments competently. There was much talent from performers including Jackie Clarke as the girl’s mother and a nice vignette from Arthur Ranford as the guy’s dad. It must be one of the hardest productions to cast but it’s hugely encouraging to find a New Zealand cast who can do the whole bundle of music and theatre. I would say that dramatic timing and weighty dialogue wasn’t necessarily the ensemble’s strong point. The voices were deftly and nicely amplified in parts but some of the dialogue would still have been lost in this theatre.
The song that has become universally beloved from the film opened the performance and was reprised for a beautiful finale, bringing us full circle. I’m talking of “Falling Slowly” which most mortals on this planet must have heard. This final song wrung more than a few tears from the audience before a last round of Irish folksong lifted our spirits to finish the night.
Go see this beautiful and joyful production before it disappears.
Tickets are available at atc.co.nz