Josh Rittberg

Arts and Culture Editor

The Fulton’s production of the new musical “Once” is a rare theatrical gift. Based off of the 2007 film of the same name, it tells the simple yet powerful tale of two people simply named Guy (Ken Allen Neely) and Girl (Katherine Fried) who meet in Dublin one magical night. Guy is a musician who has given up on his life and career after his ex-girlfriend (Hillary Alexa Caldwell) leaves him. It is Girl, a young and spunky woman from the Czech republic, who lifts Guy out of his slump. Over five days, she  helps him rediscover his love of music and life again. As they become closer over the course of the show, complications arise as Guy starts to develop romantic feelings for Girl. This is a slice of life tale that grabs the audience from the rousing pre-show and doesn’t let them go until the very last note.

Ken Allen Neely is emotionally resonant in his performance as Guy. The character starts out from a very broken place after he breaks away from his ex-girlfriend. To see Neely’s Guy get his hope back is a really marvelous journey to watch. He also shares absolutely bewitching chemistry with Fried’s Girl. His intoxicating duets with her on blissfully beautiful numbers like “Falling Slowly” carry enough genuine emotion and heart to melt even the hardest  of theatregoers. He also has a nice onstage relationship with Christopher Seller who plays his father, Da. Although they only have a couple of scenes together, the thoughtful communication the two actors achieve on stage makes this father-and-son bond feel remarkably lived in and real. Neely and the rest of the cast play their own instruments, and Neely’s guitar playing specifically is spectacular and effortless. He is an excellent lead for this company, and is wonderful to watch.

Katherine Fried as Girl gives a performance that is very light and innocent, while also one of great complexities and layers. Unlike Guy, Girl initially has a hopeful and optimistic attitude. She has a husband back home in the Czech Republic, and when she meets Guy she is moved by his music and desperately wants to help him get his passion back. She sees a spark in him deep down, and it is her character that ultimately brings the light back into his life. Fried gives a winning humor to Girl, and finds great moments of comedy in Enda Walsh’s funny and moving book. Yet, underneath all that lightness and hope, there is a darkness underneath as the audience learns maybe she is not so happy with her husband back home after all. The characters in Walsh’s book are broken people looking for life through music. Fried brings this heart aching vulnerability out in the song, “If You Want Me” which haunts and stirs emotions of confusion and intrigue with its dream-like melodies. Fried brings outstanding charisma to these numbers that truly let the audience share the joy and struggles of this woman. She also plays piano with a gorgeous tenderness and warmth. Her performance brings a sense of joy that is felt through the whole production.

The two leads anchor this production, but they are given incredible support from this wonderful ensemble cast. Some standouts include Lauren Wright as the flirtatious Reza, and Andrew Nielson as the kind hearted but musically challenged Bank Manger. Nielson draws laughs in his number, “Abandoned in Bandon” as Nielson’s Bank Manager sings his little musically tone deaf heart out. John Patrick Penick is a particular highlight as Billy, the owner of the piece’s music shop setting. His boisterous and flirtatious nature towards Fried’s Girl draws laughs throughout and brings a great comedic energy to this musical. This show is a true ensemble and when this cast brings their voices and instruments together for the glorious songs of love and longing by Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová, magic is felt radiating off the Fulton stage.

The direction and choreography by Nathaniel Shaw is an absolute marvel. His direction feels honest in the small conversations between Guy and Girl, or even between Guy and his father. Shaw is also not afraid to immerse the audience into this tale of love and music. He has musicians serenade the audience in a rollicking pre-show, and even has actors so close to audience members who are in the first couple rows that they can practically feel the music. Music in this piece is like oxygen for these characters; it is what keeps them up and what ultimately connects them all. Shaw’s production is one where gorgeous stage images abound from every corner. Even his smartly stylized choreography has actors doing melodic movements that convey moods of the dreamers in this tale without ever overwhelming the story. His choreography is most powerful in the superb act one closer, “Gold” that has the actors dancing with their instruments. This relationship between actor and musician is so vividly realized in Shaw’s vision and it is one that truly allows this piece to shine.

William J. Mohney’s music shop set has a staggering amount of detail as Rolling Stones and various band posters adorn the walls. Mohney’s shop is a community where lives come together. This is especially appropriate for a piece that, at its heart, is about connection. Joe Doran’s cinematic lighting is precisely focused in a way not often seen in the theatre. For instance, in the number “If You Want Me” he lights Fried’s Girl in a gorgeous pool of black light that is so haunting and surreal, yet also lets the audience into the complex mind of the character.

If Mohney’s set lets the audience into the home of these characters, the lighting brings them into the mind and hearts of these people. Even how Doran uses light to suggest various locations is particularly creative. To suggest a bedroom, he puts the actors into a literal box of light that feels as intimate as it does awkward and claustrophobic. This level of realism is rare in musical theatre and Doran’s commitment to create a heightened, yet real world, is truly inspirational. Much credit must also be given to J. Michael Zygo’s musical direction, whose stunning arrangements for these talented musicians are hypnotic in soaring melodies. His work is particularly noteworthy in the rousing act two showstopper, “When Your Mind’s Made Up”. The raw energy onstage in that number is enough to bring goosebumps as the actors pour their hearts and souls into this special music.

The Fulton’s production of “Once” is a truly special piece of art. This is a musical whose emotionally resonant book by Edna Walsh on connection and longing welcomes the audience into the hearts and souls of these characters. This piece is a slice of life which is more about the smaller moments and the relationships that are built than big production numbers and lavish spectacle. “Once” is a special musical that communicates its power through its silences. It feels remarkably raw and true to life, but also whimsical like the indie film it is based off of. With a talented cast and a remarkably human story of music and love, this gorgeous piece of modern musical theatre is a staggering achievement in nuance and authenticity that may very well leave audiences with a song in their hearts.