Review: Once (The Gordon Frost Organisation / Melbourne Theatre Company)

Venue: Princess Theatre (Melbourne VIC), from Oct 1, 2014
Playwright: Enda Walsh (based on film by John Carney)
Music & Lyrics: Glen Hansard, Markéta Irglová
Director: John Tiffany
Cast: Tom Parsons, Madeleine Jones, Anton Berezin, Ben Brown, Gerard Carroll, Colin Dean, Brent Hill, Keegan Joyce, Amy Lehpamer, Jane Patterson, Greg Stone, Susan-ann Walker,
Images by Jeff Busby

Theatre review
Once is probably not the first musical that makes understatement its central intention, but it is certainly the most celebrated of the kind. Enda Walsh’s quietly sentimental work is not ambitious in a conventional sense. There are no stunning set changes or breathtaking costumes, nobody dies and no predictable resurrections occur. Instead, it is determined to find poignancy and emotional resonance through story, characters and songs. There is a distinct and appealing simplicity to Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová’s musical compositions that make an impact in the absence of ostentatious spectacle, and Walsh’s ability to create affable yet colourful personalities make for a show that is powerfully endearing.

Direction by John Tiffany is sensitive to the melancholic sensibilities of the work, although the presentation of a large scale production in muted tones is sometimes clearly challenging, especially in the few, but important, scenes where music acquiesces to dialogue. An inordinate amount of versatility is required of the performers, including the ability to play instruments (accompaniment is provided by the cast itself) and in the case of leading man Tom Parsons who is a highly impressive vocalist, but a less compelling actor, several crucial sequences of emotional gravity tend to feel weaker when he communicates without the aid of music. His counterpart Madeleine Jones is more evenly talented, and she executes comedic aspects with an elegant flair. Tiffany handles lighthearted moments brilliantly, allowing an intimate connection with its audience that elevates the musical to something quite visceral, and spiritual.

The humorous role of Billy is played by Colin Dean who has the kind of eclipsing presence that wins our hearts with minimum effort. His authenticity is compelling to watch, and the confidence he displays gives his work an uplifting quality. Also memorable is Amy Lehpamer as the fiery Czech, Reza. Lehpamer is a quadruple threat who inspires with proficiencies in singing, dancing, acting and on the violin. Her comic timing is a marvel, and even though the supporting role is a small one, the vibrant performer finds opportunities to steal the limelight with delightful results.

The production is finely balanced, relying heavily on the shifting elements of live performance on each night to make the experience rewarding, leaving little room for complacency. The silences in the show mean that imperfections can become glaring, even if they are few and far between. Choreography by Steven Hoggett is effective and beautiful at times, but also awkward and overdone in certain numbers. The cast moves well, but when gestures become elaborate, the performers tend to appear uncomfortable. The story of Once talks about art and aspiration, dreams and conviction, and the way life can be designed by one’s own imagination. It swims against the tide with an unusual determinedness and audacity, to create something original, moving and thoroughly surprising.