By SHARON EBERSON
Once has a special place in David Toole’s career, and his heart.
For an actor-singer-musician, it combines all those things in an unconventional romantic story. “And I’m an Irish boy, so anything about Ireland I find very appealing,” said Toole, as he prepares to play Guy in the Pittsburgh Musical Theater production opening March 9.
Toole has been in a few previous productions of Once, including as the Emcee for Pittsburgh CLO. It was in 2018 that he played Guy, who rediscovers his passion for music when he meets a kindred spirit, for Theater Raleigh.
Once provides a role that shows off another side of Toole’s talents. The rocker with the Pittsburgh-based band Identity X can stretch his voice to metal yells and Broadway heights, or keep it tough and tender, as in the Tony-winning musical’s score, by Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová. The duet “Falling Slowly,” which originated in the movie that inspired the stage show, won the 2008 Oscar for best original song.
Kate Queen as Girrl and David Toole as Guy in Pittsburgh Musical Theater’s production of Once. (Image by DNapps Productions)
Toole and wife, Kate Queen, who co-star in the show, met in 2008, playing Tony and Maria in PMT’s West Side Story. They are parents to two sons, ages 3 and 1.
In 2021, when the world was still figuring out how to bring live theater back from the pandemic shutdown, Toole and family were in southern Utah, as part of the first wave of that effort. Toole was belting to outdoor audiences in The Count of Monte Cristo and School of Rock musicals, from the Tuacahn Amphitheater stage. The stunning venue is nestled in a canyon and surrounded by 1,500-foot red rock cliffs.
Back home last year, Toole played another high-voltage vocal role as Judas, in PMT’s Jesus Christ Superstar.
Now he is achieving a longstanding goal closer to home; playing Guy in Pittsburgh, opposite his wife. Queen has been busy of late with roles outside of theater – “in the finance world, accounting, and she just loves being a mom” – but inhabiting the role of Girl, who rediscovers her musical ambitions while fueling Guy’s, has been a goal for her, too.
“I’ve been asking PMT to do Once ever since I did it in Raleigh. Even when it was on Broadway, it was on my bucket list very early,” Toole said. “I was pretty relentless, wanting to play Guy in my hometown. Getting to do it with Kate is very special because she’s the same as me about it. We have talked about doing the show together for a long time.”
Toole has spent a lot of time thinking about the timeless quality of Once.
Each company he has joined for the show, including the Berkshire Theatre Group in Massachusetts, has remained a close-knit family, with long-running text chains to prove it.
He picked up this “fun little tidbit” while performing the show with some of the original Broadway company members for CLO:
“The meaning behind the title Once, as it was explained to me, was actually an expression of the excuses we make that keep us from pursuing our paths in life that will bring us true happiness and fulfillment,” he said. “For example, ‘Once I do this, then I’ll really try to pursue this.’ It’s such a beautiful and simple concept but carries so much weight. And it applies to all of us. It’s something I carry with me now in everything I do and aspire to do.”
When eventual Tony-winner Once first appeared on Broadway, the then New York Times critic Ben Brantley didn’t give it an ecstatic review, so preoccupied was he with comparisons about its previous off-Broadway incarnation. But he did say something prescient: “You have to watch out for the shy ones.”
Once is a musical that has no tricks up its sleeve, no sequins or kick lines. It’s a down-to-earth relationship story, fueled bu music that warms the soul when it’s not tearing at heartstrings.
“A lot of Guy’s insecurities and self doubt come from imposter syndrome,” Toole said of his character. “I have experienced that, and I think every artist can relate. We all hope for a second chance, to do it again, to not live with regrets, which is something else everybody can relate to. Guy has this passion. He knows he loves music, but the world has worn him down.”
Meeting Girl rekindles that passion in Guy. There is a simplicity about the story, yet it inspires deep emotions with music that is organically part of the tale.
Toole was waxing poetic about Once while he was in his car with 1-year-old Eli in the back seat, on their way to see Dave Mannella of Manella Guitars in Murrysville. Dad was making sure his guitars were in tip-top shape for the show.
That led to a story about his first guitar, given to Toole by a cousin at age “11 or 12.”
He recalled that the tuning peg was broken, so he kept a wrench on hand to tune it, and he at first used pennies as picks. Then he would pick up all the loose change he could find and visit Mannella, to buy picks and strings.
“I wouldn’t take my guitars to anyone else,” Toole said.
That’s just one of the perks of starring in Once at Pittsburgh Musical Theater, which has long been a sort of artistic home base for Toole and Queen.
He recalled when PMT occupied just the upper floors, above the catering hall in the James Centre, formerly the St. James School, in the West End. Now, the conservatory and relatively new performance space, the Gargaro Theater, occupies the whole building.
“It’s been magical to see after the gigs that take me away,” Toole said. “Every time I come back, it’s almost like a whole new section we didn’t have before. The studio looks brand new, and I’ve seen the mock up of the next phase … I don’t think there’s another space like it in the area.”
For a show such as Once, Toole said, PMT is the perfect fit.
“There’s the new sound system and the size of the place … it’s just intimate enough that everyone can feel like fly on the wall, watching this great slice of life.”
Once is at Pittsburgh Musical Theater’s Gargaro Theater, 327 S. Main St., West End, March 9-April 2. For tickets and info: https://pittsburghmusicals.com/once/ or call 412-456-6666..
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