Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Phoenix

Once
The Phoenix Theatre Company
Review by Gil Benbrook | Season Schedule

Also see Gil's reviews of Things I Know to Be True, Newsies, Lea Salonga: The Human Heart and Guys and Dolls


Kyle Sorrell and Michelle Chin, and the Cast
Photo by Reg Madison Photography
Based on the Oscar-winning movie of the same name, Once is an unconventional love story centered on a guy and a girl who meet on the streets of Dublin. The musical won eight Tony Awards, including Best Musical, and the Phoenix Theatre Company presents the first local production of the show in a beautifully designed and expertly directed presentation that features an incredibly talented cast of local performers who not only act and sing but also skillfully play various musical instruments. Once may have a fairly simple story, but it's also a moving piece of theatre with many moments of pure beauty.

The two main characters are simply called Guy and Girl and they are both somewhat lost in their lives. He's Irish and she's from the Czech Republic. Guy is heartbroken, as his girlfriend moved away to New York, leaving him feeling worthless and lost. He lives with his father and repairs vacuum cleaners in his father's shop, and Girl lives in a flat with her mother, her daughter, and some fellow Czechs. Guy and Girl are both musicians, and they find a connection to each other that somehow brings out feelings they've both long forgotten. We also see how they both come alive through the friendship they form and in the music they play and sing. The plot follows a period of just a few days and begins when they meet somewhat unexpectedly on the street. She hears a rough demo tape of some of his original songs and urges him to find a way to make a professional recording of his music.

The show follows the main plot of the film's screenplay by John Carney with an expanded book by Enda Walsh that provides some added dimension for the two lead roles and slightly fleshes out the supporting characters. It also helps connect the musical numbers with some short but effective scenes and plenty of humor. The score features the songs written for the film by Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová (who also starred in the movie as Guy and Girl), including the Oscar-winning "Falling Slowly," along with a few new pieces they wrote for the stage adaptation. While the songs are mainly performance numbers and don't necessarily drive the plot forward, the music does provide some very intimate and touching moments to depict the inner feelings and the pain that Guy and Girl are experiencing.

Director Pasha Yamotahari uses the same theatrical concept used in the original Broadway production—having the entire cast of 12 provide the musical accompaniment for the songs, which provides an excellent platform to showcase the musical skills of the cast and ties directly to the fact that Guy, Girl, and many of the supporting characters are also skilled musicians. In doing so, it adds a dimension of realism to the story and the characters. Yamotahari's direction also ensures the actors embody their characters with carefully thought out facial expressions and line delivery, which helps flesh out what could have been cardboard characters into distinctive individuals infused with conflict and emotion. The closeness of the stage to the audience also provides a level of intimacy that helps provide an added connection and immediacy to the story and characters. Yamotahari's musical staging and Nicole Olson's varied choreography creates some very memorable and moving stage images.

Kyle Sorrell and Michelle Chin are Guy and Girl, and their portrayals create characters of nuance and depth. You immediately see in Sorrell's pained and sad puppy-dog expression and slack body language how lost, depressed and alone Guy is at the start of the piece and how he opens up and starts to blossom when he meets Girl. Guy gets the majority of the solos in the show and Sorrell does a fairly good job of demonstrating the depth in the lyrics. However, his pure, clear voice lacks a bit of the roughness some of the tunes require to get every nuance out of the words, as well as the ability to seamlessly transition up to some of the soaring high notes a few of the numbers require. Chin is simply ravishing and luminous as Girl, making the audience immediately fall in love with her, just as Guy does. She has some of the more humorous lines of dialogue and her natural comic delivery ensures they are filled with charm and wit, while her lilting and sweet singing voice infuses her songs with emotion. Her solo of "The Hill" is especially moving. The deep connection Sorrell and Chin display with each other, along with how well demonstrated their portrayals are, beautifully depicts how Guy and Girl found each other at the exact time they needed to, in order to get out of the ruts they were in and to move on. Also, Sorrell appears to be a very talented guitarist and Chin a skilled pianist.

The ensemble cast is exceptional, with a humorous and sweet turn by Cullen Law as Billy, the owner of the piano shop where Girl often goes, and Cassie Chilton, who is appropriately forceful and full of fire, with a voice that soars beautifully in a few standout solo moments, as Réza, one of Girl's roommates. Heather Fallon and David Kirk Grant are quite effective and touching as Baruška, Girl's mother, and Da, Guy's father, and Lauren McKay is hilarious as a bank manager. Also, Alex Crossland and Jody Alan Lee provide several fun moments as two of Girl's other roommates.

Aaron Jackson's scenic design depicts a realistic street in Dublin, with shopfronts and signage on full display, and the lighting design by Daniel Davisson washes the stage with beautiful colors and shadows that echo the moods in the story and song. The final moment, with just a bright moon in the sky shining down on the Dublin street, is very moving. Cari Smith's costume are character specific and Dave Temby's sound design ensures every word and note are crystal clear. Dialect coach Diane Senffner has derived some exceptional accents from the cast that are authentic but never too thick to make the dialogue or lyrics hard to understandable.

Once may not be a musical for everyone, especially since not a lot really happens plot-wise and the score is composed almost entirely of serious songs, with only a little humor provided by some of the dialogue and supporting characters. However, the songs and the characters will most likely connect to you in a way you hadn't imagined and sweep you away to a place of pure beauty. The Phoenix Theatre Company's production is gorgeous to look at with a top-notch cast who create beautiful characters and deliver soaring, heartfelt, and emotionally rich songs.

Once, through June 16, 2019, at The Phoenix Theatre Company, 1825 N Central Avenue, Phoenix AZ. For tickets and information, visit phoenixtheatre.com or call 602-254-2151

Book by Enda Walsh
Music and Lyrics by Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová
Based on the film written and directed by John Carney
Director: Pasha Yamotahari
Music Director: Alan Ruch
Choreographer: Nicole Olson
Dialect Coach: Diane Senffner
Scenic Designer: Aaron Jackson
Video Designer: Kristen Peterson
Costume Designer: Cari Smith
Lighting Designer: Daniel Davisson
Sound Designer: Dave Temby
Hair and Makeup Designer: Terre Steed
Properties Designer: Margot Glaser

Cast: (in alphabetical order)
Emcee: Jacob Barker
Réza: Cassie Chilton
Girl: Michelle Chin*
Svec: Alex Crossland
Eamon: Matt Drui
Baruška: Heather Fallon*
Da: David Kirk Grant*
Ivanka: Azra Anna Kearns
Billy: Cullen Law*
Andrej: Jody Alan Lee
Bank Manager: Lauren McKay
Ex-Girlfriend: Jessica Moffitt
Guy: Kyle Sorrell*

*Member, Actors' Equity Association

*Members of Actors' Equity Association, the union of professional actors & stage managers in the U.S.


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