We may be about two months removed from the annual day of hackneyed leprechauns and four-leaf clovers, but that doesn’t mean that it’s too late to benefit from a dose of folksy Irish cuteness.
Now playing for an abbreviated five-day run at The Ellie Caulkins Opera House at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts, “once” — the wildly endearing yarn about love, loss and complimentary harmonies — provides just such a dash of the Eire.
Led by Tony Award-winning director John Tiffany, “once” at the DCPA is a faithful recreation of one of the newer staples to squirm into an increasingly packed modern canon.
The tale depicts the providential formation of an Irish folk band lead by a woebegone male guitarist and spunky lady pianist, neither of whom are ever given names beyond “guy” and “girl.” Bucking the typical trend of morphing a stage show into a film script, the 2011 musical is adapted from the eponymous 2006 film. The action mirrors the real-life relationship and creative partnership crafted by Irish folk outfit The Swell Season, made up of Dubliner Glen Hansard and Czech Markéta Irglová. YouTube ’em — but don’t forget to grab a bottle of screw cap white wine and a box of Kleenex beforehand.
The production at the DCPA provides a saccharine dollop of delightfully accented melodies that will more than satisfy the show’s gobs of loyal superfans. At the local premiere Tuesday, May 24, the approval was most notable in the moments just before the leads launched into the Oscar-winning smash “Falling Slowly,” when excited whispers reverberated through the lower orchestra seats. An ensuing steady string of prolonged applause breaks reinforced the notion that the masses were appreciative of more than just the chart-topping single.
In an even greater stroke of fortune for Denver “oncers,” the local staging is shepherded by a pair of phenomenal leads whose chemistry is carefully and palpably curated over the course of two fleeting acts. Mackenzie Lesser-Roy is an appropriately plucky counterpart to Sam Cieri’s doleful “guy,” careening into the action by declaring her Hoover vacuum cleaner “doesn’t suck,” and that Cieri — a jaded vacuum serviceman by day — must fix it. The duo quickly flows into an even rat-tat-tat that culminates in a number of simultaneously eye-watering and fist-bumping duets.
Cieri wastes no time convincing audience members why he landed the coveted role, wailing out a stunning take on the show’s opening ballad “Leave” not 10 minutes after the opening of the proverbial curtain. Formerly a real-life Subway busker in New York City, Cieri bear hugs the role with an audacious authenticity. And thanks to some crafty manipulation at the hands of dialect coach Stephen Gibbs and costume designer Bob Crowley, he’s eerily reminiscent of an Irish Marcus Mumford before the famous London crooner uttered anything about juvenile jungle cat-people.
Behind Cieri and Lesser-Roy, an ensemble of freakishly talented musicians assures that there is nary an instant of unharmonized boredom. At the top of the uber-talented pack, cellist Jenn Chandler wows as the brassy, Cork-born bank manager, and Liam Fennecken zips through line after line of acerbic comic relief. Morphing between Czech and Irish accents, Fennecken expertly delivers one of the better side sketches in the entire show in the second act while explaining he just downed enough coffee to caffeinate an entire early-morning class at Dublin’s Trinity College.
But despite being surrounded by a troupe of stunningly adept players like Fennecken and Chandler, John Hays as the gaudy shopkeep Billy absorbs the collective conscious on more than one occasion. Between some well-timed kicks and chops as a part of the character’s peculiar obsession with Karate and an extravagantly over-confident nature, Hays is terrifically effective at winning favor. That he (and the rest of the cast for that matter) continuously alternates between several instruments, only magnifies his comfort in the lime light.
Save for a handful of clunky between-scene transitions that are more twee than endearing, “once” at the DCPA offers an adorable trip to Ireland along with an expertly staged, complimentary love story besprinkled with honey. Wrapped in an effective set dotted with dusky mirrors, the production offers a smattering of something for everyone — whether it be the music, superb acting, syrupy love story or just the full-service bar that opens up onstage during intermission. Don’t miss this darling musical that will ensure Memorial Day Weekend is spent with ingrained four-note melodies continuously exploding out of your mental juke box.