“ONCE,” currently performing at the John W. Engeman Theater of Northport, is a revival of the 2011 stage adaptation of the 2006 film of the same name. The show originated off-Broadway at the New York Theatre Workshop before moving to Bernard B. Jacob Theater, where it captivated the hearts of Broadway regulars. By the time it ended in 2015, the original production had snagged eight Tony Awards, including Best Musical, making it a modern classic.
Unlike other Broadway musicals, which usually utilize grand scores and focus on complex themes, “ONCE” aims for simplicity. There is no orchestra — rather, the actors are responsible for both singing and playing the songs. The protagonists don’t have names — they are merely known as “Guy” (played by Barry DeBois) and “Girl” (Andrea Goss). The set is the most complex part of the show, and even then it is minimalist: it is only the back wall of an Irish pub, with some bland green hills in the background to represent the hills of Ireland. And yet, despite its downsizing, the Engeman Theater’s production of “ONCE” manages to endear itself to the audience.
The key to the musical’s success lies in its story and music. The plot only spans over the course of a week, yet it is filled with the type of everyday experiences and verbal intercourse that the average person encounters. One can easily see themselves in the main characters as they mock life’s little oddities and express frustration over repressed desires and broken dreams. To add to that, in a unique twist, the show allows the audience to connect with the characters directly — before the show begins, the characters invite the audience on-stage and take requests for Irish pub songs.
The story begins with Girl approaching Guy, a vacuum repairman by day and wannabe musician by night, to fix her Hoover, which, quote, “doesn’t suck.” After that encounter, they develop a relationship and work together to realize Guy’s dream of playing in a band. But there is one problem: both Guy and Girl have romantic relationships with people that, for better or for worse, have been missing in their lives. The brunt of the play focuses on how Guy and Girl deal with their repressed desire for each other, tugging at the audience’s emotions all the way. The emotional impact is strengthened by the passionate performances of Debois and Goss, although Goss’s fake Czech accent does sometimes impede her delivery.
The score of “ONCE” serves as a great accompaniment to its heart-touching story. It consists of Irish ballads and jigs, reflecting both the solemnity and liveliness of the characters that play it. Even if the songs themselves aren’t as memorable as other Broadway shows, they still manage to leave quite an emotional impact on the audience. In particular, the slow, mellow qualities of the song “Falling Slowly,” weaves an atmosphere of regret and loss.
The fact that the actors themselves perform this music, rather than a distant orchestra, serves to strengthen the emotional connection between the audience and the characters. The actors play their violins and guitars with the same passion that they have in their acting, and the end result is an intense catharsis for the audience.
The Irish spirit of ONCE will depart from Northport on March 4. Tickets can be purchased for $73.