Review: ‘Once’ at Olney Theatre Center

If you’ve never heard of the musical Once, written by Enda Walsh, with music and lyrics by Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová, you aren’t alone. Despite receiving eleven 2012 Tony Award nominations and winning the award in 8 of those categories including Best Musical and Best Book, the musical story of a Guy and Girl who meet by chance and change each other’s lives through music has mostly flown under the radar, never achieving the widespread acclaim of other modern musicals.

Malinda Kathleen Reese as Girl and Gregory Maheu as Guy in ‘Once’ at Olney Theatre Center. Photo by Stan Barouh.

The actors in Once double as the show’s orchestra, playing a range of instruments from the piano to the violin to the mandolin to the bodhran, making it abundantly clear from the first moments of the story just how talented they are. The story’s two main characters, who are never given actual names and are identified in the playbill only as “Guy” and “Girl,” are both riveting in their roles, perfectly embodying their characters and bringing them to life.

Gregory Maheu plays Guy as a lost and vulnerable romantic, while Malinda Kathleen Reese, as Girl, is a force to be reckoned with. Girl first sees Guy playing his guitar at what he thinks will be his final performance. His heart has been broken by a girl who has moved to New York and in his despair, he is ready to give up music to work in his father’s vacuum repair shop. Luckily for him, Girl has seen him play and recognizes in him a talent that should be shared with the world. Reese is an actress with the ability to command the stage from the first moment of the show.

In the story, it is Girl’s strength and sense of purpose that pulls Guys from his depression and puts him on a path that might one day make him both happy and successful with his music. (By the way, Malinda Kathleen Reese is an Internet sensation who your kids have probably heard of already for her hilarious “Translator Fails” YouTube channel. If you want a guaranteed laugh, try it.)

The ensemble cast is just as engaging, from Dave Stishan as the protective and tender-hearted Billy, owner of the music store where Girl goes to play the piano, to Daven Ralston who is so fun to watch as Reza, Girl’s friend and fellow immigrant to Ireland, to Bank Manager Nick DePinto, who gives Guy the loan he needs to record his music and ultimately make it to New York. Music Director Christopher Youstra, who also appears in this production, lets each member of the cast stand out, with many playing several instruments throughout the course of the show, while somehow wrangling each of these solo-worthy performers into an ensemble you could listen to all night long.

The set is simple but effective, allowing the actors to create new spaces with their acting alone, while giving each scene enough of a change that the audience can easily follow along. The cast is on stage for most of the performance, retreating to seats in the rear when not in a scene and stepping up when necessary. Choreography and direction from Marcia Milgrom Dodge adds extra spice to the show, allowing the characters to dance joyfully as they play (even while playing the cello!) and using the entire stage area to the show’s advantage.

John Sygar (Andrej), Carlos Castillo (Svec), Daven Ralston (Reza), Malinda Kathleen Reese (Girl), Somaya Litmon (Ivanka), and Emily Mikesell (Baruska) in ‘Once’ at Olney Theatre Center. Photo by Stan Barouh.

The music from Once won a Grammy for Best Musical Theater Album and the show’s stand out song “Falling Slowly” won an Academy Award for Best Original Song (the show started as a film – a 2007 Irish romance/drama written and directed by John Carney). A mix of Irish folk and easy to listen to (as opposed to “easy listening”) rock, these aren’t typical “showtunes” but more like the type of music you might play on a long road trip with friends or when spending a quiet Sunday home alone. All cast members have wonderful voices but Maheu and Reese are standouts, bringing depth to both their solos and duets. When the entire cast joins in, Once becomes a (folk) rocking good time.

The Olney production delivers a standout, memorable performance that will leave you searching for the cast album and more time to spend with Girl and Guy.

By the way, get to your seat early to enjoy a rocking preshow performance from the orchestra that will have you thinking you somehow wandered into an Irish bar that has a live show being performed by the most talented bar performers ever. And be sure to put a tip in the tip case. Not only do the performers deserve it, but all the money gets donated to a great cause.

Running time: 2 hours with one 15-minute intermission

Once plays through March 10, 2019, at the Olney Theater Center, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Road, Olney, MD. For tickets, call (301) 924-3400 or go online.

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