Music theatre fans in Sydney have waited a long time for Once. Winner of eight Tony Awards, the show had its Australian premiere at Melbourne’s Princess Theatre in late 2014 (led by original Broadway director, John Tiffany) for a limited but critically-acclaimed season. Now, in a brand-new production presented by Darlinghurst Theatre Company, Sydney finally gets its opportunity to experience the smash-hit musical, which has won audiences over across the globe.
With a book by Enda Walsh and music and lyrics by Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová, Once is based on the 2007 John Carney film of the same name. It is a moving, romantic musical urging all of us not to give up on our dreams or on love. At the centre of the story is ‘Guy’ (Toby Francis), a Dubliner who’s long aspired to make a living as a musician. A singer and guitar player, most of his music was written for his ex-girlfriend, who recently moved to New York City. The end of that relationship has dampened Guy’s ambitions for his music and his days are spent working as a vacuum cleaner repairman with his father (Cameron Daddo).
But while busking on the streets of Dublin, Guy meets a young Czech immigrant, ‘Girl’ (Stefanie Caccamo), who also harbours a passion for music and plays piano. She needs her vacuum cleaner fixed (it “does not suck”, we’re told). That interaction becomes the beginning of a friendship that will see Guy’s interest in music revitalised, as well as a new-found determination to chase his chance at love.
It’s a simple story and it’s delightfully told here through a collection of gorgeous, intensely romantic and soulful songs that run the gamut, from the exuberant and celebratory to the plaintive and penitent. Hansard’s and Irglová’s score is the integral ingredient of a piece that is likely to appeal to audiences considerably wider than usual music theatre fans.
Once is also unusual in that it tasks its cast with providing all of the musical accompaniment. Led by an immensely talented musical director, Victoria Falconer-Pritchard, all 11 cast members play an instrument (and some play multiple) and their skills result in a rich wall of sound filling the Eternity Playhouse, doing absolute justice to the show’s wonderfully-crafted songs. Movement director Amy Campbell (recently recognised for her outstanding choreographic work on In The Heights) has performers threading through the space, instruments in hand, and succeeds in ensuring it’s never cluttered or awkward or at odds with the integrity of the music playing itself.
Hugh O’Connor’s set evokes a tremendous sense of a ‘seen better times’ Irish pub, and there’s great attention to detail on display. The set is beautifully-scaled to this space and has front row audience members so close to the action that they’re almost patrons. Similarly, Peter Rubie’s lighting is incredibly evocative, particularly noteworthy for its effective role in creating moments of stillness, of contemplation and of pain.
But this production of Once is also triumphant in large part because of its excellent cast. Francis delivers a strong performance as Guy, portraying the worn out by love leading man with authentic emotion. His Guy is melancholic and sensitive, believably wounded by his breakup – and, perhaps, by life. Francis also has the vocal chops required here, especially impressing when singing in his full throttle higher register.
In her first principal role on the professional stage, Caccamo is exceptional. As Girl, she is self-assured and pragmatic but also ardent and benevolent. In short, it’s a perfectly-judged characterisation and it’s equalled by Caccamo’s performance in song, which gives us a number of the evening’s vocal highlights. Her vocals on ‘If you want me’, an early insight into Girl’s emerging feelings for Guy, is a mesmerising Act 1 standout. Later on, ‘The Hill’, Girl’s plea to Guy to see the woman standing in front of him, is a further showcase of Caccamo’s remarkable voice.
Drew Livingston is a scene stealer late in the first act, playing the bank manager approached for a loan to facilitate Guy’s pursuit of his musical aspirations. His comedic timing is terrific and he’s in good voice. Elsewhere, Rupert Reid’s own comedic skills are an asset to his performance as music shop owner Billy, and Daddo is convincingly paternal as Guy’s father. The ensemble cast (which includes Joe Accaria, Conrad Hamill, Abe Mitchell, Alec Steedman and Joanna Weinberg) lends depth to the musical numbers and energy in the pub scenes.
It may have taken time to get here, but Once has certainly been well worth the wait. Under the direction of Richard Carroll, this is an affecting, entertaining, distinctive and unforgettable experience, ideally housed in the intimate, 200-seat Eternity Playhouse. If you’re a fan of the film, it’s a must. If you’re not, it’s a night of musical entertainment unlikely to resemble anything else you’ll attend this year. Highly recommended.
ONCE – THE MUSICAL – SEASON DETAILS
Season: Playing now until 21 July 2019
Where: Darlinghurst Theatre Company’s Eternity Playhouse (39 Burton Street, Darlinghurst)
Times: Tuesdays – Saturdays 7:30pm, Sundays 5pm
Wednesday matinees on 10 and 17 July at 2pm
Saturday matinees on 13 and 20 July at 2pm
Prices: $58 – $76
Bookings: (02) 8356 9987 or www.darlinghursttheatre.com/whats-on/once