When "Once" was getting ready to make its debut off Broadway in 2011, the producers described this interesting amalgamate of a musical this way: "The story of an Irish musician and Czech immigrant are drawn together by their shared love of music. Over the course of one fateful week, their unexpected friendship and collaboration evolves into a powerful, but complicated romance. 'Once' is a musical celebration of life and love: thrilling in its originality, daring in its honesty, and unforgettable in every way." The musical is based on a charming 2007 Irish film that gained a following, but was never quite in the mainstream.
"Once," now at Actors' Playhouse at the Miracle Theatre has its own share of originality, and its own unforgettable moments. And there aren't just some moments, but many. What director David Arisco, Jeni Hacker, who created choreography and musical staging, the ensemble, and everyone else involved in this regional production, have done is capture the essence of what makes "Once" special (more on that in a moment), and then built upon the emotion and intimacy. And, this is the magic: You feel as if you're the only one watching what's unfolding despite the cavernous 600-seat Mainstage auditorium.
If you've never seen the show, it's a true theatrical experience, mostly because of how the actors are required to double as musicians. Actors must be triple threats, as usual: act, sing, and dance, in usual musical theater situations, but here they have to be that, and then some; able to carry more than a tune on a fiddle, guitar and piano.
For a regional theater, it's a difficult show to take on, and kudos to Actors' Playhouse for not only choosing something so challenging, but for making it "sing."
Ben Hope plays Guy, a heart-broken songwriter whose taken his pain and put it into his music. At the top of the show, he's about ready to ditch his music since he's so tired of being forlorn. His lass has left him and moved to New York. The "Once" veteran is more than comfortable in Guy's jeans – he made his debut in the role in 2012. And, he knows his way around music and a guitar as the leader of his own Honky Tonk band based in New York City called Ben Hope and the Uptown Outfit.
When his voice soars through the Miracle Theatre on the opening song "Leave," (I noted a hint of Bono in his end-of-song wailing, not remembering even though I've seen the show before that Bono is referenced soon after in the script), there's no question that Hope has inhabited this character before. He's Broadway material for sure, and a special treat for Miami audiences.
The Girl to his Guy is Elizabeth Nestlerode, who just finished playing the role (which also requires piano skills) at Florida Studio Theatre in Sarasota (California-born, Pacific Northwest-bred, she's a graduate of University of Miami's musical theater program) plays the chilly Czech who warms up to Guy, wanting to help him get his heart mended and his recording career off the ground. The Girl character is a difficult one to navigate. As written, it is a cold-as-ice delivery – a recurring callback that reveals her personality when ask if she's serious? "I am always serious, I'm Czech."
But Nestlerode finds a way to counter the freeze with a portrayal that let's you see more deeply into what's wounded her. For one, the character's husband has left her in Dublin, with her daughter and mother, and a gaggle of other immigrants who inhabit her space. There's the crazy, overly caffeinated Svec (played for effect by Cody Craven, who also doubles on banjo, drums, guitar and mandolin), and Anna Lise Jensen's sultry Reza (on violin), mother Baruska (Joanne Borts, who handles accordian), and Stephen G. Anthony as Andrej, who plays bass, guitar, and ukulele. The role of daughter Ivanka is played by two young actresses who share the part at different performances, Abbey Del Corral and Maria Diaz.
While the romantic saga plays out, there's plenty of roles that add comic relief. Craven's curly haired, messy Svec (costumed in Ellis Tillman's choice of red track suit, which gets a laugh on its own) has plenty of places for clowning; Chris Blisset's Billy, the bar owner and big bear of a guy, who knows ka-ra-tay, but doesn't have the moves, is a hoot. He's also a talent on banjo, guitar, mandolin, and some percussion. There's Andreina "Nina" Kasper as the bank manager whose original tune for cello and voice yields the advice from Guy and Girl to her character: "You can certainly play, but don't ever sing again. Ever." Kasper does play a mean cello, which she studied at New World School of the Arts, and at FIU, and has performed with the Miami Symphony.
Others in the cast are Margaret Dudasik as the willowy ex-girlfriend, a violinist, who has more than a few acting credits under her belt, but also toured the U.S. with Irish folk bands; Michael Friedman, as the emcee, who performed as Jack in Actors' Playhouse's "Jack and the Beanstalk," on guitar and percussion; musical director Ryan McCurdy as Eamon, who is from the original company of "Once" on Broadway, and who plays multiple instruments in this production, and the always likable local favorite and multiple Carbonell Award winner Barry J. Tarallo (who knew he could play mandolin?) as Guy's pop, Da.
What makes this "Once" special is the delicate touch, yet so determined in putting its own stamp on things. Arisco's direction gets to the heart of the characters, where the music, as it should, speaks volumes as an integral part of each person's heart and soul. The music and the portrayals are never separate, but somehow meld into one, so subtly, yet so effectively.
Adding to this is Hacker's flowing choreography, which creates movements that can almost stand alone as snapshots. When three female characters get lost in listening to music on oversized headphones and begin to go into their own dreamlike trances, you drift away with them. Jodi Dellaventura's set, realistic in its rustic bar, is homey and welcoming, while Eric Nelson's lighting and Shaun Mitchell's sound adds to the warmth.
There's an ethereal quality to "Once," and, if you let it, and please do, it will carry you away.
Once plays through March 25 at the Actors’ Playhouse at the Miracle Theatre, 280 Miracle Mile, Coral Gables. Performances 8 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday, 3 p.m. Sunday. Tickets $57-$64. Visit actorsplayhouse.org or call (305) 444-9293.