Sunday, February 10, 2019

Hitting the Right Notes More Than ‘Once’ at Olney

Malinda Kathleen Reese as Girl and Gregory Maheu as Guy

As the patrons file into the Olney Theatre Center’s Mainstage, they are greeted by an impromptu, high-tempo mini-concert performed on stage by a group of musicians playing and singing a few Irish folk songs and some pop tunes thrown into the mix. Their wardrobe and spoken accents leave no doubt about the setting for what was about to unfold.

Once, a quirky romantic musical by Irish film director, producer and screenwriter John Carney, is making its Residential Regional Premiere at the Olney Theatre Center. The musical, which opened on Broadway in 2012 following a brief stint at the New York Theater Workshop, was based on the 2006 low-budget indie film that was also written (and directed) by Carney. Once received 11 Tony Award nominations and corralled eight statues in 2012 including Best Musical. #hocoarts

Marcia Milgrom Dodge, Tony Award Nominee for the 2009 revival of Ragtime on Broadway, makes her Olney Theatre Center debut as Director and Choreographer. Her direction and staging of this musical is impeccable. The production is paced superbly with precise timing, and a talented cast and crew deliver in splendid fashion. 
    
Once is an unconventional show in that actors comprise the orchestra, play multiple instruments, and are onstage through most of the production.  There are two leads in the show, and the other cast members appear in scenes and then return to the sides or rear of the stage so they can resume their instrumental work.

Even Olney’s talented resident maestro, Helen Hayes Award winner Christopher Youstra, who serves as Musical Director for the production, emerges from his familiar locale in the orchestra pit to participate in the onstage action, playing the accordion among other instruments, joining in a dance, and has a bit of a speaking part as Emcee.  He appears to be enjoying this different facet of his repertoire.

It is indeed a challenge to find accomplished musicians who concurrently possess solid acting skills, yet their performances demonstrate that the folks at Olney responsible for casting were quite successful in meeting that challenge.

John Sygar (Andrej), Carlos Castillo (Svec), Daven Ralston (Reza),
Malinda Kathleen Reese (Girl), Somaya Litmon (Ivanka)
, and Emily Mikesell (Baruska)
As was the case with the film with the same odd name, the musical Once features music and lyrics by Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová. The book for the musical was written by Irish playwright Enda Walsh, which contains a good dose of romantic sentimentality with comedic moments popping up throughout. 

There are peppy folk-rock numbers in the show but overall, the score is ballad-heavy. The Oscar-winning song “Falling Slowly” plus others like “If You Want Me,” “Leaving,” “Say It to Me Now,” “Gold,” “Sleeping” and “When Your Mind is Made Up” are quite enjoyable in their tenderness. Generally, the melodies are sweet and the lyrics are quite touching in support of a sweet and touching story.

Guy, a contemporary Dublin street musician (played wonderfully by Gregory Maheu) is ready to throw in the towel on his music as the songs he wrote were directed towards a girlfriend who left him to move to New York.  The reason for the breakup is never divulged, but he continues to brood about it.

He encounters a Czech immigrant, referred to as Girl (played expertly by Malinda Kathleen Reese) who heard his guitar playing and singing and immediately becomes curious about him.  If that chance meeting wasn’t enough of a coincidence, you have the fact that Guy’s day job is a Hoover vacuum cleaner repairman and Girl’s Hoover that “doesn’t suck” is in need of repair.

Guy creates a barrier whereby Girl doesn’t get too close. But they open up to each other as the budding friendship ensues. She recognizes the beauty and scope of his talent and encourages him to not let his recent breakup prevent him from realizing his true potential.

Girl ultimately convinces Guy to share his music and she gets behind the piano.  It is clear both have musical gifts and they make each other’s music better.

She implores Guy to keep writing his music, make an album and go to America to win back his ex-girlfriend and return to his original love. It is during their quest to finish this album that Girl and Guy become closer and begin to fall in love with each other. However, Girl’s estranged husband wants to reconcile, and out of duty towards her young daughter, she wants to give it a chance.

Gregory Maheu as Guy and the ensemble of Once
As the guitar-playing musical talent Guy, sturdy and handsome Gregory Maheu is commanding and graceful on stage and portrays the brooding young man effectively while maintaining an Irish accent throughout.  Mr. Maheu’s guitar-playing abilities and baritone vocals are impressive and strong and are showcased in such songs as “Leaving,” “Say It to Me Now” and “Gold.”

His lines are perfect set-ups for the more comedic Girl character in the person of Malinda Kathleen Reese. With a Czech accent in tow, she is a loveable forceful firecracker but exhibits a vulnerability and resists the temptation to fall physically for Guy. Ms. Reese’s comic timing is spot-on in many exchanges, and her vocal prowess is on display in the duet with Mr. Maheu in “Falling Slowly.” The onstage chemistry between the two leads is outstanding as is the hilarious repartee. These are key factors in the production’s success.

They receive solid support from other performers, such as Dave Stishan as Billy who provides a comedic turn as well as Emily Mikesell as Baruska who is Girl’s mother, and Nick DePinto as Bank Manager.

Rounding out the talented cast are John Sygar as Adrej, Carlos Castillo as Švec, Katie Chambers as Ex-Girlfriend, Craig MacDonald as Da who is Guy’s father and owns the vacuum repair shop, Daven Ralston as Réza, and Brian Reisman as Eamon.  Girl’s daughter, Ivanka, is played in-rotation by Kyleigh Fuller and Somaya Litmon.

Scenic Designer Michael Schweikardt’s set, while not elaborate, is artistic and functional. The backdrop is abstract and aesthetically pleasing. A couple of lamp posts are shown to denote the street scene and chairs are off to the sides from where the musicians play.  Several large set pieces like a piano, a bed and a large wooden bar are used with the latter two being elevated from under the stage.

This setting is amplified by the warm glow from Colin K. Bills’ lighting and the exceptional sound designed by Matt Rowe. Frank Labovitz attired the cast neatly in costumes that are emblematic of  the working class neighborhood of Dublin.

Once is a different type of musical from what we’re accustomed and is highly recommended. It features a tender romantic story of looking back at what has been, how to bounce back from despair and to try anew while beautiful songs fill the theater.

Not splashy and bold as many musicals are, but Once is a performance-driven production executed by a wonderfully talented cast, a skilled technical crew, and helmed so ably by a total pro. The issue is you may not want to see the show just once.

Running time. Two hours with an intermission.

Advisory: Once contains profanity and is not suitable for young children.

Once runs through March 10 at the Olney Theatre Center, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Road, Olney, MD 20832. Tickets may be purchased by calling 301-924-3400 or by visiting online

Photos: Stan Barouh

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