Once More, with Feeling: A Review of Once at the Public Theater of San Antonio

click to enlarge SIGGI RAGNAR
Siggi Ragnar
Once: The Musical, now on the main stage of the Public Theater of San Antonio, delivers mightily on a recent agreement with Actors’ Equity Association: the production boasts no fewer than ten Equity-affiliated artists. (In fact, the female lead, Olivia Clari Nice, has already played Once twice. Now thrice.) And such expertise is sorely needed: the conceit of the evening is that there are no pit musicians, but rather the actors play every instrument, including guitar, piano, percussion and cello. Just on the level of technique, it’s a fiendishly difficult show to pull off, and the Public Theater should be proud of its ambition and its success.

Based on John Carney’s independent film, Once is buoyed by an eclectic folk-rock score by Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová. Mostly notably, it features the insanely hummable Oscar-winning song “Falling Slowly,” which bookends a tale of star-crossed lovers who are — you guessed it — falling slowly in love. But they’re also falling slowly through life, each trapped in a relationship of dubious viability and consigned to the unsettling neverland of contemporary Dublin, itself confronting new obstacles, including economic ones. We first meet an anonymous Irish lad — Guy (Robby French) — crooning broken-heartedly on his guitar. He is overheard by an immigrant Czech Girl, who recognizes (at once, natch) his compositional talent. She becomes his muse and (more importantly) his de facto agent, as the two bond over music and barely concealed longing. Enda Walsh’s impossibly Irish book becomes more fantastical as the evening progresses — strumming a song to a loan officer probably wouldn’t work in the Alamo City — but allows for some lovely supporting characterizations (especially Paul Henry as a down-on-his-luck shopkeeper, spiraling through his own loneliness).

Olivia Clari Nice is a real find. The Girl warps the tonal field around her (“I am always serious. I am Czech,” she deadpans), which can make her character a bit of a cipher. Instead, Nice’s choices were endlessly fascinating: I couldn’t take my eyes off her. French, with a terrific set of pipes, makes for a compelling Guy, even if the character is a bit underwritten dramatically.

The production’s scenic concept — by Dan Heggem, Jeremy Whittington and George Green — could use another, um, once-over: it’s a weird amalgam of hanging curtains, high-end incandescent light fixtures and golden platforms. Whereas the Broadway design was rather on-the-nose — an Irish pub — at least it anchored the story in a specific time and place. Here, it’s not at all clear what the symmetrical curtains signify or how the set informs the story. (It’s possible, for instance, that those gorgeous fixtures gesture toward the firmament, since the musical ultimately concerns transcendence, artistically and romantically. Even more could have been done with that notion. I also want those bulbs in every room of my house.)

But these are quibbles. Once largely tells its story through music, and the set never gets in the way of Green’s fluid staging, which arcs toward some gorgeous climaxes (such as an a cappella rendition of “Gold”). Longtime readers of the Current know my heart is, by now, a shriveled lump of coal, but even I fell, and not just slowly, for Once.

$20-$40, 7:30pm Thu-Sat, 2pm Sun through June 9, The Public Theater of San Antonio, 800 W. Ashby Pl., (210) 733-7258, thepublicsa.org.

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