“Once” is Now, a True Timeless Tale of Song and Sadness; Romance and Redemption at the Segal

Love stories abound – in cinematic settings, across our television screens, and as lyrical subject matter in song after song. Sometimes syrupy, often bloated and occasionally fantastical, they are often boxed and tied with an elegant knotted ribbon at the end, and then all parties – protagonist, antagonist, supporting entourage and even bit players alike are generally all smiles as the horse drawn carriage or limousine fades into the sunset with the happy couple embarking on their assuredly flawless futures. The sparkling beauty of Once, currently playing at the Segal Centre and kicking off the Segal/Montreal musical season with glory AND grit, is that it holds no pretenses about fairy tale denouements or one-way linear ascents to utopia. It’s a struggle from its first note, which can actually be heard in the lobby of the Segal – where the sonic aspect of the performance begins PRIOR to the actual start of the stage show – with some of the ensemble plying their musical trade, to its rousing crescendos and pensive peaks and valleys throughout.

Set against a backdrop of a slightly dreary Dublin working class neighbourhood, Andrew Shaver directs this moody, yet marvelous, stage adaptation of John Carney’s 2007 miniscule budget / majestic jewel of a result, motion picture (which was later turned into a theatrical juggernaut on Broadway and then beyond in 2011). Greg Halpin and Eva Foote star, and this basically echoes the gorgeous simplicity of the setting and premise, Guy and Girl, respectively. He an Irish busker trying to build a musical career from the streets up, but after years of toiling and achieving little aesthetic success – all the while still feeling compelled for practical reasons to work in his father’s vacuum-repair shop and at the end of his professional rope – and she, no less than a Czech immigrant in Dublin and a musician with bohemian leanings (literally, a “flower girl”) and a spirit a tsunami likely couldn’t dampen. This potential Odd Couple, a fitting description to be sure on a multitude of levels, find themselves on a collision course with fate when Guy is about to throw in the towel (and the guitar pick), but runs headlong into hope, soul reclamation and Blonde Ambition.

Just as when the movie was cast with Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova as the Guy and Girl (who doubled as the writers of the music and lyrics for the production), Halpin and Foote have very limited acting experience on their résumés, but pretty intrepid musical and performance experience in Canada. But that only serves to add to the charm and realism depicted on the stage. Adding to the thespian-related challenges of the roles, they – along with the other dozen enthralling ensemble cast members – each had to learn to do something outside of their expertise and comfort zone, like learn a new instrument they’d never played before. Their efforts pay off with heartwarming dividends.

As Guy is haunted by his departed girlfriend who left for America and a floundering career, along comes Girl with a broken vacuum cleaner and an eye toward the future. The beauty of the burgeoning, unorthodox love story is that it’s not neat and tidy by any means, but rather randy and jagged in its edges. But it is beautifully told, and there are many beautiful sounds to be heard from the songs and musical numbers so eloquently choreographed by Annie St-Pierre. David Terriault’s musical direction accentuates the ebb and flow of the love story with flawless efficacy, and one’s pulled heartstrings become the extra musical instrument added to the mix. Amy Keith does a fabulous job of costuming, helping create the working class struggle vibe of Dublin with astonishing accuracy. Martin Sirois’ effective, lush, and warmth-laden lighting exquisitely complements the urban Irish experience genre of costuming done by Keith, and Ken MacKenzie’s sharp and eye-catching set design completes the visual trifecta.

Take your ears, your hearts, your musical sensibilities and your romantic spirits on a fantastic Irish voyage to the Segal Centre up until October 28th. Visit segalcentre.org for more information or call the box office at (514) 739-7944.

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