In 2014, Melbourne Theatre Company and John Frost co-produced the musical Once. It was a charming production, directed by John Tiffany, but it didn’t tour. Now Sydney finally has a chance to see the wistful, beguiling little show in a new production staged by Darlinghurst Theatre Company – and truth be told the intimacy of the small-scale, 200-seat Eternity Playhouse suits it perfectly.

The musical is based on John Carney’s 2007 low-budget film, a romantic musical drama starring Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová as struggling musicians in Dublin, which quickly gathered a cult following. Hansard and Irglová also wrote the songs (and fell in love while filming, though they later separated), winning an Academy Award for Best Original Song for their gentle indie folk number Falling Slowly.

Stefanie Caccamo and Toby Francis in Once. Photograph © Robert Catto

With a book by Enda Walsh, the musical started life Off-Broadway at the New York Theatre Workshop in December 2011 then transferred to Broadway the following year, winning eight Tony Awards including Best Musical. The stage show retains the melancholic, understated feel of the movie but it has enough added drama and joyous bursts of energy from the musical group numbers to really shine on stage.

The infectious music, which combines a Celtic folksy feel with light pop-rock and gorgeous ballads, springs naturally from the action. The fact that it is played live on stage by the cast, sweeps you up in the charm of the production still further. However, it could easily become too sentimental and whimsical if the performances of the two lead characters aren’t utterly truthful – but touching authenticity is exactly what it gets from Stefanie Caccamo, Toby Francis and the rest of the cast in this gentle, uplifting production directed by Richard Carroll.

Designer Hugh O’Connor has created a simple set evoking an Irish pub, with a bar in the corner. Other locations are suggested with the quick addition of a piece of furniture or a few props, accompanied by Amy Campbell’s choreography, which takes its cue from the laid-back world in which its set. It’s a very clever design that sits incredibly well in the space (which was formerly the Burton Street Tabernacle) and makes you feel as if you are in the pub with the characters.

The cast of Once. Photograph © Robert Catto

The musical begins on the streets of Dublin where The Guy (Francis) is busking, letting out a howl of anger and pain in a song about a broken relationship. He lays his guitar down, ready to turn his back on music and focus instead on working in his father’s vacuum cleaner shop. But a young Czech woman, known only as The Girl (Caccamo), who happens to be passing, intuitively understands his pain and confronts him in brusque but humorous fashion. Recognising a kindred spirit – she is also a musician and dealing with an unresolved relationship – she talks him into mending her vacuum cleaner, for which she will pay him in music on the piano.

Over the next five days, she cajoles him into recording an album of his songs with her family and friends. She also gets him to organise a trip to New York to catch up the girl he has been mourning for. Love quietly but quickly blooms between them. However, things are complicated, particularly since The Girl is married. “Love is all very well but in the hands of people it turns to soup,” says one of the characters.

Caccamo is stunning as The Girl. She gets the deadpan comedy exactly right, her quirky terseness tangibly underpinned by largely unspoken emotion (except in one moment when she reveals herself in Czech, which The Guy doesn’t understand). Her accent is solid as a rock, and her vocals are never showy but flow naturally, pulsing with heart and soul. When she sits at the piano, and sings a lilting ballad to herself, she breaks your heart. She is definitely one to watch, as they say.

Francis is also touchingly convincing as the shaggy, vulnerable, bruised, awkward Guy, whose life suddenly opens up with new possibilities and hope when he meets The Girl. His accent may slip a little now and then, but he brings just the right vibe to the musical numbers and his singing also feels as if it comes straight comes from the heart. What’s more, the connection and chemistry between Francis and Caccamo feels very real.

The cast of Once. Photograph © Robert Catto

The rest of the cast all lend wonderful support, particularly Drew Livingston as the music-loving bank manager, Rupert Reid as the impulsive music store owner Billy who is rather taken with The Girl, and Victoria Falconer who is both The Girl’s sassy friend Reza, and the violin-playing Musical Director. But all of the performers (Joe Accaria, Cameron Daddo, Conrad Hamill, Abe Mitchell, Alec Steedman and Joanna Weinberg) work together closely as a tight, in-tune ensemble, and when the music flares and they burst into song, it’s joyous.

Led by Carroll, who brings just the right light touch to his direction, everything in the production (choreography, music, lighting, design) combines organically to create something heartfelt, bittersweet, and very special. Tickets are flying out of the door. Book now if you want to see it.

Once plays at the Eternity Playhouse, Sydney until July 21, and then at IPAC, Wollongong, July 24 – 28


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