Lack of romantic chemistry apart, “Once” offers a warm break from the winter blues

Sat Feb 16, 2019 at 2:15 pm
By Erica Hansen

Roderick Lawrence and Hillary Porter star in “Once” at the Pioneer Theatre Company.

Pioneer Theatre Company offers up a bit of warmth during the seemingly endless winter season with Once, which opened Friday night. This musical adaptation of the 2007 film of the same name, won eight Tony Awards in 2012, including Best Musical.

Once follows two young, aspiring musicians in Ireland, as they encourage each other’s talents. A guitarist with a day job as a vacuum repairman is ready to give up on his dreams of pursuing music career. A pianist from the Czech Republic picks up the guitar he left behind and each changes the other’ life, personally as well as professionally.

While music is clearly in the foreground, Once is also about friendship, love, and a sense of community in working toward a common goal of creating something that didn’t exist before.

The musical requires actors to be quadruple threats: not only the usual, acting, singing, and dancing, but—in a recent twist for Broadway—playing instruments as well.

PTC’s production, directed by Pirronne Yousefzadeh, delivers on these points. The band/ensemble kicks off the night with a pre-show of wonderful Irish folk music. This is a great mood-setter, allowing the audience to disconnect from their day and transition to the Dublin setting. As the show unfolds, the band grows, adding guitar, banjo, mandolin, accordion and cello among others. Many of the performers swap and play multiple different instruments allowing for great versatility and movement.

The multi-gifted cast offers up some fantastic highlights, particularly in Act II with “Gold” sung exquisitely a cappella. The harmonies and simplicity of the moment are spellbinding.

But Once is also a love story, telling the tale of two forlorn souls finding one another. It’s about unrequited love, attraction, and the notion that we are put into each other’s paths for a reason. And this is where the PTC production falls a bit short.

In the two lead roles—known simply as “Guy” and “Girl”—Roderick Lawrence and Hillary Porter handle the musical sides capably and both deliver some lovely solos. While Lawrence’s guitar playing is fine, his voice doesn’t seem entirely suited to the folk genre. He seems just a bit out of his element.

Porter does a beautiful rendition of “The Hill,” alone at the piano. The role of Girl can be a bit robotic—there is an ongoing joke about her being serious because she’s Czech—but even so, Porter’s acting lacks the spark of warmth necessary to believe she’s actually falling for Guy.

And that is the main problem with Pioneer’s current production. Their duets fall a bit flat and—both musically and emotionally—they just don’t muster that slow smolder needed for these two characters. The audience almost finds itself rooting for Guy to get back with his ex-girlfriend as much as rooting for him to get together with Girl.

Guy’s group of comrades turn in fine performances with Kristopher Saint-Louis (in multiple roles including the bank manager) and Chris Blisset (as Billy, the music shop owner) being standouts.

Yoon Bae’s set design is functional, infused beautifully with musical nods. The production’s look and sound (costumes by Gregory Gale, lighting by Kirk Bookman) also add to the Irish setting with muted, but colorful tones and a skillful musical sound mix.

Once takes you on an engaging and melodic trip to Ireland, but this production doesn’t quite break your heart as it should. Still, you may find yourself downloading the soundtrack on your way home.

Once runs through March 2.

Erica Hansen was theater editor for the Deseret News and the original host of the popular radio program Showtune Saturday Night. An area performer and long-time theater lover, she enjoys knowing theater from the stage and the house. 

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