By JESSICA NEU
I would have loved to have been at the first table reading for Once. As I imagine it, the cast and crew are gathered around and read the description of the first scene: “Strike the traditional Irish band complete with fiddles, violins, piano, guitar and hand drums. The musicians then help set the first scene and then take their place seated upstage, but keep their instruments with them because they are also the show’s orchestra. The Girl then enters and begins singing an Enya-like ethereal opening number that stands in stark contrast to the rowdy pub-anthems that the orchestra just performed.” As I watched this all unfold during Pittsburgh Musical Theater’s (PMT) production of Once, I was in awe of the fluidity of the daunting stage blocking by director Tim Seib.
The musicians and cast worked together to produce an earnest, vulnerable production where just as much was said in the silent or instrumental moments as was spoken in dialogue.
Everything about this production worked. There was even a bit of a haze in the Gargaro theater that, when paired with the lighting, created an authentic atmosphere of a slightly dingy Irish town.
Before the show began at 7:30, fans were treated to a pre-show performance by the talented musicians who serve as the show’s orchestra. The singing, dancing, and fiddling created enough revelry in the audience to turn the theater into a pub. The bar line was long; the audience was clapping, dancing, and ready to enjoy the show. Then, with the slow fade of houselights, the show began. Again, what should have been a jarring transition was comfortable and inviting. It was as if movement became a character in the show.
The music remains at the core of this show, which focuses on the quickly developing relationship between Guy (David Toole) and Girl (Kate Queen). After a happenstance meeting, Girl encourages Guy to pursue his musical dreams when he is determined to give up after the love of his life moved to NYV. Forget turning water into wine, as Guy and Girl “fall slowly,” the musicians also double as cast characters, proving how a multi-talented ensemble can turn water into smooth Irish Whiskey, pungent yet satisfying, with stunning vocals and understated nuances from this multi-talented cast that brought forth the importance of tradition, culture, and representation.
In a society currently grappling with the immigration debate, cultural appropriation, and cultural representation, Once’s treatment of these themes are gentle yet thought-provoking. As Girl asks Guy, “What does it mean to be Irish? Are you proud of it?”
Regardless of our ethnicity, Once reminds us that pride and tradition are something to be remembered, shared, and celebrated. Stories of previous generations are dying, and we must find ways to keep these stories and traditions alive. The beautiful relationship between Guy and Girl shows the power and importance of believing in someone. However, their superbly delivered cheekiness towards one another keeps the sentiment light-hearted yet impactful, peppering in moments of laughter throughout the story of love, self-exploration, and tradition. Once is not a show to be missed. Guy and Girl represent us all and serve as a welcomed reminder to remain steadfast when forlorn because someone out there believes that your voice deserves to be heard.
Read Sharon Ebserson’s interview with David Toole here
PMT’s production of Once runs now through April 2nd. For more information, visit: https://pittsburghmusicals.com/once/