Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Philadelphia

Arden Theatre Company
Review by Rebecca Rendell | Season Schedule

Also see Rebecca's reviews of Mary Shelly's Frankenstein and Such Things as Vampires

Katherine Fried and Ken Allen Neely
Photo by Ashley Smith, Wide Eyed Studios
Even before the house lights go down, Once begins to conjure its gentle magic. Warm illumination and a gloriously open space invite. Velvety rugs suggest informal comfort. A large group of talented musicians casually gather at the center of the room, joyfully playing drinking songs and U2 hits. We get the sense that something very special is about to happen, and the Arden's expressive production of this musical with book by Enda Walsh and score by Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová does not disappoint.

Once begins just as Guy (an endearing but sulky Ken Allen Neely) is giving up his amateur music career. After busking one last brokenhearted ballad, he leaves his guitar on the street and walks off. Enter Girl (Katherine Fried is enchanting), who keenly observes that Guy is pining for a lost love and in dire need of some encouragement. They are polar opposites in many ways—introverted v. extroverted, optimistic v. pessimistic, Irish v. Czech—but they come together over their passion for music. The unlikely pair decide to record a demo. Only problem is they have less than a week to pull everything together. Yes, they do fall in love, but after dabbling in the standard romantic comedy tropes, the story takes a decidedly original turn in act two.

Along the way a bevy of fascinating minor characters weave their own stories of heartbreak and song through the main narrative. In my favorite subplot, Billy (the always wonderful Scott Greer) and the Bank Manager (Charlie DelMarcelle is utterly adorable) let the experience of playing together turn their fiery hatred into friendship. That transition is imbued with such delight and authenticity, it makes you want to cheer. In the end, Once is as much about the joy of music and its ability to bring people together as it is about Girl and Guy's particular relationship.

Director Terrence J. Nolen is at the top of his game: utilizing the F. Otto Haas Stage to the utmost, bringing out excellent performances from every member of the remarkable ensemble, and elevating the respectable score with masterful staging and authentic emotion. To say that the show is staged in the round is an accurate understatement. Yes, the audience is seated all around the stage, but the actors also work behind and between, singing from the aisles and a speaking from a raised runway that surrounds the theater. Fluid choreography—it seems like the ensemble is slowly but constantly rearranging themselves—gives the ensemble an opportunity to to connect with each other and the audience.

With a stream of increasingly extreme and intense entertainment vying for our attention, there is something exquisite about the quiet appeal of Once. A blissful celebration of music and an earnest ode to love, it may be slow at times (particularly in the first act), but the marvelous production casts such a pleasant spell you probably won't care.

Once is and runs through October 28th at the Arden Theatre Company's F. Otto Haas Stage, 40 N. 2nd Street, Old City Philadelphia PA. For tickets call 215-922-1122 or visit

Guy: Ken Allen Neely
Girl: Katherine Fried
Billy: Scott Greer
Da: Greg Wood
Baruska: Emily Mikesell
Reza: Kendal Hartse
Ex-Girlfriend: Mary Fishburne
Andrej: Alex Bechtel
Svec: Skip Robinson
Eamon: Justin Yoder
Bank Manager: Charlie Delmarcelle
Emcee: Josh Totora

Director: Terrence J. Nolen
Scenic Designer: David P. Gordon
Lighting Designer: Thom Weaver
Costume Designer: Olivera Gajic
Sound Designer: Elizabeth Atkinson
Music Director: Ryan Touhey
Choreographer: Steve Pacek
Projection Designer: Jeanette Oi-Suk Yew
Stage Manager: Alec E. Ferrell
Associate Director: Liz Filios
Assistant Stage Manager: Norah Scheinman