“Once” Strikes a Chord at CCM

Review by Nathan Top

Based on the critically acclaimed 2007 motion picture, University of Cincinnati College Conservatory or Music’s production of “Once” begins when a talented yet disillusioned busker, anonymously identified as Guy, meets a Czech woman, similarly named Girl, who begins to rekindle Guy’s passion for music. As Guy rediscovers his love for music, he also discovers a magnetic attraction to his new muse Girl, whose own loyalties complicate the new relationship. With a book by Edna Walsh and score by Glen Hansgard and Markéta Irglová, the original Broadway production won several Tony Awards, including Best Musical.

Director Richard Hess’s production masterfully commands the tone of the show. The musical almost registers as a play with music, focusing more on the drama of the story rather than the spectacle we often associate with musical theater. That said, there are some beautiful haunting musical numbers, brought to fruition by musical director Steve Goers.  While the vocals are gorgeous, one of the most unique features of the show is the lack of a large pit offstage. Instead, the actors accompany themselves on instruments including guitar, cello, piano, ukulele, melodica, and percussion. When not part of the primary scene, the actors float along the stage as troubadours, accompanying musical numbers and scene changes throughout. 

Scenic designer Sami Tamulonis and lighting designer Aiden Bezark create a fluid world on the stage, reflecting the more cinematic aspects of the script. Using painted scaffolding, a bench, and some super cool light-up beer signs, the scenery and lighting glides around the actors, simulating an eclectic collage that draws the audience into the world and the story. 

Without the reliance of large, choreographed musical numbers and longish scenes between songs, the cast truly has an opportunity to flex their acting chops. While the dialogue is naturalistic, every role has an accent (props to dialect coach Joy Lanceta Cornel). Sophomore Musical theater student Jackson Reagin (Guy) gives a charming and nuanced performance, displaying beautiful chemistry with his love interest. One of the biggest highlights of the show was his performance of “Gold” during the Act 1 finale. 

Gracie Parker is captivating as Girl, giving a poignant performance as a woman walking the line between her belief in Guy’s music and her allegiance to her absent husband. Garrett Van Allen and Jake Waford are engaging with physical comedy as music shop owner Billy and Bank Manager respectively and Jack D’Angelo (Da) shares some touching moments with Jackson Reagin. The cast is versatile and mesmerizing, playing guitar, participating in scenes, and making the world feel much larger than the stage on which they reside.

CCM’s production of “Once” is both heartbreaking and hopeful, reminding audiences that love, connection, and music are among the reasons life is worth living. “Once” runs now through November 14th. Tickets (Very few!) can be purchased here.

Nathan Top is a Cincinnati-based playwright and musician. Nathan works as a freelance trumpeter and pianist, performing in big bands, pit orchestras, and pop groups throughout Cincinnati.