Musical review: Once, Darlinghurst Theatre Company

A small and delicate musical with a big impact, 'Once' is a welcome addition to the local theatre landscape.

Once is a small and delicate musical with a big impact, both emotionally and critically.

Based on the Academy Award-winning film by John Carney, the original Broadway production opened just over a decade ago and has won pretty much every available award, including a Grammy and several Tony Awards.

Melbourne Theatre Company produced the Australian premiere in 2014 and now Darlinghurst Theatre Company finally brings its 2019 production to Melbourne after a COVID-related false start. This version of the show features a fabulous cast and exquisite music, but lacks a clear artistic vision.

The story of Once is a simple one. It’s set in Dublin, where a nameless guy (Toby Francis) is depressed and disillusioned after a break-up with his long-term girlfriend (Ruby Clark) and the stalling of his fledgling music career as a singer songwriter. A chance encounter with a young Czech woman (Stefanie Caccamo) reignites his passion for life and art, but complications in both of their romantic lives present challenges to their budding relationship. They connect deeply over their shared love of music and their journey is joyful, tentative and heartbreaking. Once is a passionate love letter to the transformative power of music, the unpredictable nature of love and the universal need for human connection.

The stage adaptation features a small cast of actor/musicians who all play Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová’s original score live on stage. This production is strongest in the casting and presentation of the songs, the performers are accomplished musicians and vocalists, and the musical direction by Victoria Falconer (who also plays the role of Reza) is superb. The music in this Once is a sonic sensation.

Unfortunately, on opening night there were numerous issues with almost all the other elements of the sound design. Ambient background sounds, such as birds chirping or passing cars etc, were extremely overamplified, there were quite a few missed sound cues, and a pervasive microphone crackle during one particularly moving song in Act Two almost destroyed the audience’s emotional connection to the moment. These issues were pervasive and distracting.

The direction of this production, while still hitting most of the big emotional beats in Enda Walsh’s tender book, is a bit loose and aimless at times. There isn’t an overall feeling of cohesion and Amy Campbell’s impressive movement direction does a lot of the heavy lifting. The moments where the ensemble come together in a mélange of singing, playing and movement, such as the songs ‘Gold’ and ‘When Your Mind’s Made Up’, are thrilling; it’s just a bit of a shame that this vibe doesn’t permeate the piece as a whole.

In the lead roles of Guy and Girl we have Francis and Caccamo. They have good chemistry and share several beautiful moments throughout the show. Francis’ performance, while vocally riveting, comes off as a tad too insular and could be more charismatic. At times there is a lack of connection to the audience, which makes it hard for us to relate to the character.

On the other hand, Caccamo’s performance is electrifying. The charming idiosyncrasies and sense of comic timing she brings to the role win the audience over from the moment she bursts onto the stage. And that voice! Caccamo possesses a gorgeous instrument, a unique combination of clarity, warmth, power, huskiness and grit. Her performance of ‘The Hill’ is remarkable and stopped the show cold on opening night. Caccamo is quite simply a star.

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The supporting cast all shine in their respective roles. Anthony Craig is hilarious as the Bank Manager and Rupert Reid brings much macho buffoonery to the role of Billy. When all these performers sing and play together it’s incredibly effective and one of the biggest draws of this particular production.

Once is always a welcome addition to the local theatre landscape and, technical issues notwithstanding, the poignant power of this tiny gem of a musical comes through in this production.

Produced by Darlinghurst Theatre Company
Book by Enda Walsh
Music and Lyrics by Glen Hansard & Markéta Irglová
Based on the Motion Picture Written and Directed by John Carney
Directed by Richard Carroll
Comedy Theatre, Melbourne
Once runs until 4 June 2023

Reuben Liversidge is based in Melbourne. He has trained in music theatre at the VCA, film and theatre at LaTrobe University, and currently works as Head Talent Agent for the Talent Company of Australia.