Beck Center/Baldwin Wallace Collaboration for 'Once' is an Exceptional Celebration of Love and Song

click to enlarge Beck Center/Baldwin Wallace Collaboration for 'Once' is an Exceptional Celebration of Love and Song
Photo by Roger Mastroianni

There are moments when you listen to a song for the first time and you know you’re going to love it from the first notes. The Beck Center’s production of Once is one of those such moments.

Based on the 2007 Josh Carney-helmed film of the same name, Once found a new identity in its Tony-award winning Broadway run, adapted to the stage by Enda Walsh. Ditching a few of the original songs and stripping the story to its most essential elements brought what could, from the surface, be viewed as an average love story into a universal tale of affection and the unity of good music. In fact, the musical theatre iteration magnifies the story's sense of intimacy and authenticity.

Artistic director Scott Spence and company have understood that intimacy and have given it a refreshing youthful soul, as director Victoria Bussert has guided some of the best and brightest students of the Baldwin Wallace Theatre Program for a collaboration that merits many more a theatrical meeting of the minds. The decision to partner with BWMT drives home a narrative of young love and the complicated emotions surrounding it. With equally sharp notes and wit, the entire ensemble brings an energy to this story that rivals other iterations.

Once starts out pretty easy to follow: We have a Guy (Jake Slater) and a Girl (Kelsey Anne Brown) meeting on the street in a rather bizarre circumstance. As the Guy unleashes a primal cry of heartbreak in the production’s first musical number, “Leave,” it catches the ear of the Girl, who strikes up a conversation with him. A few philosophical exchanges and a repaired vacuum cleaner later and the two discover they a share a mutual love for performance, as she invites him to a music store owned by Billy (the hilarious Eric Graupensperger) and he reluctantly teaches her a song of his, “Falling Slowly,” which most will recognize as the Academy Award-winning musical heart and hit of the film.

A simple boy-meets-girl becomes a little less cut and dry after it’s revealed that the Guy still holds unresolved feelings for his ex (Erin Niebuhr), and the Girl takes it upon herself to help get him back with her, despite the Guy now fostering a newfound affection for the Girl and channeling his anger and frustration into a rediscovered love for writing and performing.

Throughout the play, we’re introduced to the sometimes wacky, always likeable auxiliary characters in Guy and Girl’s world, such as her roommates: the more-than-casual Svec (Warren Egypt Franklin), the overtly sexual Reza (Gillian Han) and the wide-eyed Andrej (Charlie H. Ray, who also performs songs as a younger Guy). Through the guidance of the girl’s mother (the captivating Shelby Griswold) and daughter, Ivanka (Marlowe Miller and Brenna Sherman, depending on the show), and a Hail Mary loan provided by a musically gifted bank manager (CJ Garbin), the Guy and Girl set out to record an album whilst battling their feelings towards each other.

Many fans of the film will be drawn to its acclaimed soundtrack, and seldom will be disappointed in its delivery. All the performers display multiple talents, most playing more than one instrument throughout. From the boisterous Mackenzie Meyh lugging around the cello with ease to the aforementioned Ray utilizing a variety of guitars and Franklin providing several forms of percussion, the melodies are rich and varied.

Speaking of the vocals, while the ensemble’s harmonies are amazing, it’s Slater and Brown who stand out with absolutely stellar performances. Slater and Brown each possess an astounding amount of raw talent, musically and in terms of acting. Sharing the stage, they equal the chemistry and passion of the original duo of Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova, the film’s original composers.

The music is paired with top-notch choreography by Beck Center veteran choreographer Gregory Daniels, who finds a way to fill the space with the liveliness of the performers without cluttering the meat of the narrative.

While many versions of this play are performed with a rather minimalist set design, stage and scenic designers Imani Robinson and Jordan Janota took the initial communal space concept and have dressed a gorgeous set built for jam session vibes throughout the interludes, as well as a sobering platform for the more melancholic solos. Sublime lighting by technical director Mark DeVol and master electrician Arwyne Dorsey accentuate those performances.

Further bringing the story to life are the Irish and Czech dialect couches to the cast— Brennan Murphy and Matthew Koenig respectively— who have done a fantastic job at providing the talent a base for some fairly seamless voice work, especially during the musical numbers.

The Beck Center and the Baldwin Wallace Theatre Program have graced the local scene with a production that fully warrants the accolades, proving a story can be told more than once and still find a certain magic through simple, solid storytelling and genuinely heartfelt songs.

Catch Once through Feb. 24 at the Beck Center. Tickets and more information at
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