So ... a guy goes into a Dublin pub with his guitar ... and after a rollicking pre-show with an onstage actual working pub, Paramount Theater’s Midwest premiere of the musical “Once” begins. And be careful because it will ensnare you with humor, haunting songs and a simple but delicious story. The 1,888-seat audience must have agreed, because the cast of 19 received a well-deserved, immediate standing ovation on opening night.
You do not have to be familiar with the 2007 independent Irish film “Once” to fall in love with this musical. It’s the intimate story of two musicians who, in a five-day period of writing songs together, and despite complications (girlfriend in New York, estranged husband in Czechoslovakia), fall in love.
Yet this Tony Award-winning musical isn’t a typical screen-to-stage adaptation. “Once” lives and breathes on its own as an uplifting and bittersweet, fully fleshed-out story. Or as the always-creative Artistic Director Jim Corti said, “we’re not trying to put a movie onstage.”
Tiffany Topol, an Oswego native and film/TV composer, is Girl. She is an incredibly gifted and talented actress, singer and musician. Topol displays every ounce of energy, determination, compassion and beauty needed to push Guy into changing his life and pursuing his musical dreams.
Moreover, she knows how to deliver lines with adept humor ranging from the running gag line, “I’m always serious – I’m Czech” to “You’re like Mendelssohn, except you’re alive and Irish.”
Barry DeBois is a sweet, deflated, attractive Guy, an Irish vaccuum repair man who also happens to be a brilliant guitarist and singer (just like DeBois). His character is best summed up by one of his own lines: “waste a life because you’re frightened of it.” DeBois is just superb, whether dueting or soloing.
The supporting ensemble, one and all, is composed of magnificent and flawless musicians and singers under the musical direction of Tom Venafreddo.
They had to have had a tremendous lot of fun with the songs and joyful dancing; what will send chills down your spine is their a capella rendition of “The Moon.”
Most of the time, you’ll either want to be dancing or singing along yourself; and yes, “Falling Slowly” is a recurring and interwoven tune, but its importance and beauty are appreciated.
However, there are several stand-outs in the supporting ensemble: Alex Hardaway as the bank manager from Cork; Everleigh Murphy as Ivonka, Girl’s adorable daughter; Jon Patrick Penick as Billy, the lovestruck music shop owner, and Nik Kmiecik and Grant Alan Watkins as brothers Andrej and Svec, their accents alone and impersonations of the soap opera ‘Fair City” are show stealers.
The majority of the acting, especially between Guy and Girl, takes place in the downstage central front area with the rest of the ensemble sitting in lowered lighting behind the two, or scattered around in the pub. The minimalist set designed by Jeffrey D. Kmiec is beautifully clean and functional and Corti’s staging is effective and fluid. There are no special effects in this production, nor are any needed. But do watch out for the very clever switch on subtitles. Theresa Ham’s costumes are contemporary and attractive.
I have yet to see a production that doesn’t soar at the Paramount Theater. It’s a gorgeous palace, a homage to the majesty of theater, and I’ve also found that the staff from the valets to the ushers are remarkably polite and sincerely helpful. Much of the Paramount’s success has to do with their production choices, values, and the consistent brilliant artistry of director Jim Corti.
“ONCE” is yet another sparkling jewel in the Paramount’s crown.
• Regina Belt-Daniels is a working actress and director who began her career onstage in 1985 at the Woodstock Opera House. Formerly serving on the Raue Center for the Arts Board, she also is a lifetime member of TownSquare Players and a retired District 47 teacher.