There's a deep sense of melancholy as well as a quiet joy emanating from the Beck Center for the Arts stage now with the musical "Once."
Audience members are transported to a Dublin bar and its environs for this show, a partnership between Beck Center and the musical theater program at Baldwin Wallace University. With a cast of 16 directed by Victoria Bussert, it's extraordinary how this talented young ensemble brings to life the world of an Irish and Czech community brought together by music.
The musical, based on the 2007 film by John Carney, follows a brokenhearted Dublin busker (Guy) as he meets a Czech immigrant (Girl). In five short days, this inspiring young woman shares music-making with him and helps him see a world of possibility through his beautiful, sad songs, just when he had been about to give up on his art. The persuasive Girl ends up helping Guy do a 24-hour session for a record label.
"Once," which played on Broadway from 2012 to 2015, was the winner of eight Tony Awards, including best musical. Baldwin Wallace is the first musical theater program in the country to tackle the poignant show.
Part of what makes it so extraordinary — and difficult to cast — is that all of the actors also play instruments, becoming the onstage band. Their instruments, which include all of the original ones in the Broadway show, include Guy on guitar, Girl on piano and other cast members on drums, cello, violin, mandolin, banjo, melodica, accordion and more.
The college-aged cast brings the music-making to a high level, having begun instrumental rehearsals with music director Matthew Webb back in September. They memorized the entire score before staging rehearsals began in January.
That extensive preparation shows, starting with a rowdy pre-show of tunes.
Leading the cast are Jake Slater as the emotionally fragile Guy and Kelsey Brown as the beautiful, persistent Girl. The delightful Brown strikes up a one-sided banter with Slater's Guy, and we slowly see her character healing Guy's heart.
This musical has a number of gorgeous ballads, the most famous being the hit "Falling Slowly," as Guy and Girl magically make music together on the spot. Another standout is Brown in "If You Want Me," as she privately creates yearning lyrics to Guy's accompaniment and we see him playing guitar in the shadow of a doorway. Here, Brown does a poignant interpretive dance by choreographer Gregory Daniels with Gillian Han as Reza and Erin Niebuhr as Ex-Girlfriend.
Not everything is heavily emotional in this show. With her dry sense of humor, Girl says, "I'm always serious. I'm Czech!"
Ensemble members playing her Czech friends and family, especially Shelby Griswold as mother Baruska, portray a passionate, loving people. They perform a spirited folk song in "Ej, Pada, Pada, Rosicka."
The staging also is beautiful as cast members watch the action from the sides or back of the stage and join in on the music-making, either seated or in choreographed segments, the performers dancing as they play.
This show allows us to simply breathe and soak in a nontraditional love story. What's left unsaid between Guy and Girl — a slow exhale or a steady gaze — is what speaks volumes.
Arts writer Kerry Clawson may be reached at 330-996-3527 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her at @KerryClawsonABJ or www.facebook.com/kclawsonabj.