Regional Reviews: Cincinnati
A well-respected Broadway critic once said that most great musicals usually focus on a big person/personality or a big event/situation. Once is neither of these, but instead about everyday interactions with strangers and friends. The musical is based on the 2006 independent film of the same name and won the Tony Award for Best Musical in 2012. The story follows an unlikely friendship between an Irish musician and a Czech woman transplanted to Dublin. She encourages him to stick to his music during rough times in his life.
The storyline (book by Enda Walsh) is simple, with effective humor, but the show soars due to the music (and music is the shared interest of the characters). The score is by Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova, who starred in the movie. "Falling Slowly" won the Academy Award for Best Song for the film, and is put front and center here. This and the other songs in the score pulsate with a rhythmic energy that is alive with soul, passion, and a hard-edged (though extremely accessible) angst. The songs might best be described as being in the modern Irish folk style. But, as wonderful as these songs are, they rarely advance the plot, rather serving as commentary on the characters' feelings, or as a performance piece.
Director Richard Hess is the perfect person to helm this production. Throughout his career, he has been all about connections and relationships, and that has always been imprinted on his shows. Once is no exception. The (often) quiet dialogue and deeply personal connections are communicated with a tenderness and compassion that likewise describes Mr. Hess.
CCM's production boasts worthwhile efforts and execution in other areas as well, such as robust musical direction (Steve Goers), organic musical staging (Eric Santagata), atmospheric lighting (Aiden Bezark), versatile scenic design (Sami Tamulonis), and attractive costumes (Megan Vaughn). The multi-talented cast of 16, including some exuberant pre-show performers, all play musical instruments onstage (a lot!), and they provide wonderful singing and acting. There are praiseworthy performances all around.
The two main characters are not named, but Jackson Reagin and Gracie Parker are likely to be remembered for their performances. Mr. Reagin provides subtle acting choices in tandem with impassioned singing. Ms. Parker conveys so much with her eyes (which is very helpful since the cast is masked), nails the dry/droll humor of the quirky role, and sings very well. The entire cast is fully invested in their roles. Special shout out to Garrett Van Allen as Billy, who provides great comic relief throughout.
Once isn't a big musical, but rather a very intimate show. This production soars in large part thanks to the talented and dedicated performers. If you don't have a ticket for the sold-out run, be sure to catch other CCM shows later this year and in the future. Their staff and students almost never let you down. Once is about celebrating life and those we love. This production is likewise a celebration of Richard Hess and the impact he's had on students, faculty and audiences for nearly thirty years at CCM.
Once runs through November 14, 2021, at CCM, Cohen Family Studio Theater, 290 CCM Blvd, Cincinnati OH. For tickets and information, call 513-556-4183 or visit https://ccmonstage.universitytickets.com/w/?cid=168.
NOTE: Like a number of other local colleges, the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music (CCM) isn't requiring vaccination for theatergoers, but are employing a reduced seating capacity and masking, as well as masking of their performers.