Britta Ollmann and Ben Bakken star in the regional premiere of Once at Theater Latté Da through Oct. 21.
All photos by Dan Norman
The beauty of the 2007 film Once starring Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová was its musical rawness and its unedited appearance. In its transition to becoming a musical, it not only won eight Tony Awards in 2012, but it also added a few heavy-handed embellishments. Despite that, Theater Latté Da’s production of it has its own magic, and the opening night audience agreed. The standing ovation was so long, the cast had to come out and take a second bow, perhaps the first of many during its regional premiere at the Ritz through Oct. 21.
For those who haven’t heard of Once, its premise is not unfamiliar: A lonely, resigned Guy meets a straightforward (except when she’s not) Girl. They change each other’s lives through music and learn how to dream again, even if those dreams don’t work out how they envision.
The Tony-winning script by Enda Walsh expands Once’s story from two people to 12, and it tries to replace the intimacy and close-up candidness a film camera can provide with bigger emotions, more obvious humor, and, at least in Latté Da’s version, bigger musical numbers. While I wish some of the stylization was stripped away, I am realizing that often comes par for the course when you make a Broadway-level musical.
Certain things, like Reed Sigmund’s simple bravados as the music store manager Billy (it involved fake karate) or Silas Sellnow’s naive enthusiasm as Andrej are total tropes, but the actors make them endearing. Or maybe I’m just a sucker for, in Andrej’s case, the American dream and the faith he has in his lucky suit. (I will say, on a re-watch of the movie, the meeting with the banker (Jay Albright) to take out a loan was corny to begin with.)
What Latté Da’s production nails is the casting. Ben Bakken plays Guy, and his voice has the perfect amount of ruggedness to Britta Ollmann’s straight and true notes as Girl. The two had a chemistry on stage that pushed past the rushed pace of their relationship and worked, boyish faux pas and tight-lipped quips included.
The music is the one thing that has to be believable, and it is. Music director Jason Hansen brings the cast together for numbers that are full of vitality and longing. Certain songs cause me to wonder if a more intimate, realistic version might be better—the show is definitely plagued by instances where electric bass and violins sound off during a guitar-only song—but they still sound good, and I can see why director Peter Rothstein and Hansen went for the fuller, layered sound.
The choreography by Kelli Foster Warder also plays into the dynamics of the piece, and to me, her motif of steps and leaning is at its best when they melded into the natural movements Bakken’s character does during the melancholy number “Sleeping.”
Reflecting on the movement, the train station-inspired set by Michael Hoover, and the story itself, everything seems to speak of coming and going, of old traditions and loves—good or bad—and teetering on the edge of hesitation and diving into the unknown.
Once is a story that sounds cheesy when you describe it to people, and honestly, the musical’s book makes it cheesier. However, Theater Latté Da pulls it off. Even though it sometimes struggles to define its voice between being a big musical production and embodying the busker’s authentic simplicity it portrays, it all works together. (And because of that, I would be remiss to not mention costume designer Mathew LeFebvre and lighting designer Grant E. Merges as well. LeFebvre’s choices for Girl were the perfect combination of smart, buttoned up, and charming, and Merges’ soft lighting usage makes time stop a little more.)
If you’re looking for a night of honest music and a kick in the pants to chase your dreams, Once is your show.
P.S. Do come for the 30-minute pre-show of Irish music. I was expecting some quiet ambiance music, but I got a triumph of merriment full of percussive stomping, fiddle wars, and heart-grabbing singers. It is a show worth seeing in itself.