ESSEX — The gifted director and choreographer of “Once,” now playing at Ivoryton Playhouse through Oct. 14, is named Ben Hope, and it just doesn’t seem that his last name can be a coincidence. With a lively, multi-talented, and wholly committed cast, he has—in his directing debut—created a production that instills hope in the audience through music, humor and a bittersweet love story portrayed with great charm.
As most people know, the stage musical “Once” is based on John Carney’s 2007 film of the same name, with songs written by its two young stars, Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová. The 2012 Broadway production won eight Tony awards out of 12 nominations, including Best Musical, Best Actor, and Best Book (Enda Walsh).
The musical’s plot is very similar to that of the film. A singer-songwriter and busker, Guy, begins the action by singing an angry farewell song to the woman who broke his heart and left Dublin. Girl comes upon him as he sings, recognizes his terrific talent, and learns that he plans to give up performing. She is appalled, especially since she deeply believes in music and plays the piano whenever she can. Girl convinces Guy to keep singing and writing and to win back his love.
Meanwhile, Girl has her own romantic troubles. Originally from Czechoslovakia, she has left a husband who doesn’t appreciate her, and she is now living with her little daughter, her mother, and Czech friends in a boarding house. Over the course of a week, Guy and Girl, with Girl as the driving force, record a demo CD and fall into a complicated sort of love with no easy answers. Marvelous Irish music punctuates their story: Guy’s songs, Girl’s songs, several beautiful duets including “Falling Slowly,” and numerous group numbers that display Irish culture at its most dynamic and alluring.
Though the story itself is somewhat thin for its two-plus hours running time, Hope keeps the energy high, and along with set designer Glenn Bassett, he makes the scenic changes, of which there are many, inventive and enjoyable to watch. All the actors are also musicians, so when they are not in a scene, they sit on boxes arranged around the periphery, amplifying the piano or guitar numbers with haunting strings and percussion of all kinds. Eric Anthony’s music direction gleams.
In addition to being consummate players, each of the actors is strong, and most are superb. As Guy, Sam Sherwood brings aching truth to this young man’s pain, confusion, newly awakening passion, and fear of the unknown. As Girl, Katie Barton blends humor with determination, private anguish, and a poignant acceptance of life’s hard realities. Were the chemistry between these two not so strong, and were Barton a less generous performer, she could easily steal this show. But Hope has directed her so that she, and every one of the other actors, can shine.
And shine they do. As Reza, Girl’s best friend, Margaret Dudasik is a gorgeous lion of a woman: sexually confident, prowling around the stage with her violin, and then surprisingly tender with Girl. Stephen G. Anthony plays Billy, who owns the music shop where Girl plays the piano, and who has a great and hopeless crush on her. On opening night, his comic bluster, streaked with Irish melancholy, rightly drew applause after every one of his scenes. In the second act, the fights he has with the equally skilled Andreina Kasper, as the cello-playing bank manager, create a small and uproarious play-within-a-play.
Marcy McGuigan, as Baruska, is the ultimate earth mother: strong and confident, concerned for her daughter, Girl, she gathers more than one character up in her arms, and one senses that those embraces should heal any sorrow. Jonathan Brown makes the most of his hilarious character, Svec, who is almost as obsessed with caffeine as he is with the soap operas he watches to learn English. And Morgan Morse, as Andrej, with his big dreams of becoming the manager where he now works as an underling, is quietly heart breaking.
Marcus Abbott provides a lovely lighting design for the show, and Cully Long’s costumes bring out each character’s unique qualities, as costumes should. When you go—which I strongly suggest you do—don’t miss the Director’s Notes in your program. Ben Hope not only knows how to direct this production on the stage: he knows how to put into words its deepest significance.