Set in Dublin in the nondescript 2000s, Once charts the ill-fated, near-romance of an aspiring musician, “Guy” (Ben Bakken) and a blunt yet caring Czech immigrant, “Girl” (Britta Ollmann). While the story revolves around their relationship and music, a full and meaty ensemble of musicians and ancillary characters fleshes out the romantically depicted but impoverished Dublin, hinting at the ethic and social barriers faced by nearly all of the characters. Based upon the 2007 film of the same name, Girl helps Guy realize the beauty of his music and gets him organized, ultimately enabling him leave Dublin for New York to pursue his musical career (and another woman who Girl believes Guy still has feeling for).
Performances & Music
Latté Da is a Minneapolis staple for a reason, and Once continues their reputation for musical performances. Particularly notable in this production is the multifaceted talent of the 13 person cast. Everyone sings; almost everyone plays one or two instruments. Once shines musically during its slowly swelling moments. Most of the music is nominally diegetic (unlike some musicals, the characters know they are singing songs -- it’s not like the lyrics and music are taking the place of dialogue as they do in some musicals). However, as Girl and Guy start singing with each other, often the ensemble slowly adds in their voices and instruments to grow the demo into a fully-produced song. It is a musical technique that mimics the way falling in love feels: at first the two lovers see and feel only each other, but the force of their passion and the hopes they have for the future grow and overflow, until what they are is so much larger than just the two of them. They build something together that is larger than what either of them could have built alone. It is beautiful and, also, perhaps a bit overwrought to be so liberally applied. But even when I knew I was being emotionally manipulated by the music, it didn’t stop me from enjoying it.
Britta Ollmann, playing Girl, is compelling and sweet without being cloying. Her body language, including a very direct and purposeful way of leading her movements with a stubborn tilt of her her forehead, compliments her lovely singing voice. She manages to keep her accent throughout her songs, which feels authentic without being excessive. She does an admirable job with a part that doesn’t always make complete sense (and a script that often has the audience laugh at her imperfect English). While she seemingly has lots of agency within the play, and indeed drives most of its action forward, it seems suspect that she would put so much on the line to help Guy when things are not exactly going great with her own life. Apparently abandoned by her husband with a new baby, Girl still finds the time to save Guy, seemingly expecting nothing in return.
Ben Bakken’s Guy is charming and precisely as written--he is downtrodden but handsome, and quite the singer. Bakken does an admirable job making the more cringeworthy parts of his interactions with Girl (like repeated attempts to sleep with her) come off as sad and lonely instead of skizzy; this is hard but completely necessary for the romance plot to function properly. He brings real soul to his numbers, even when the songs themselves aren’t exactly the barnburners song-writers (and original Guy and Girl) Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová might have been hoping for.
The real problem with Once is that none of its songs are as memorable as they ought to be (which, paradoxically, is much more apparent when performed with such verve, as is on display at Latté Da). I’m not entirely sure why, but my hunch is some combination of too much rock-opera mixed with entirely too many lyrics. The songs don’t seem to tell a story, nor do they employ enough repeated refrains to entirely stick with me.
Like so many of us in the US, both sides of my family can be traced back to Ireland. The common narrative we so often hear in the US is how maligned (because they were) the Irish who immigrated here were. By showing the Czech immigrant experience in Ireland, Once forcefully reminded me that hometuff is, of course, dependent on where you find yourself. Watching the subtle, overt, and alluded to xenophobia against the Czech immigrants is one area that Once could explicate more, and edges away from really exploring; instead, the prejudice faced by the Czech immigrants runs alongside the main narrative, never quite becoming as important at the romance between Girl and Guy, but underwriting part of its impossibility. A great exception to this silence is embodied beautifully by the very talented Silas Sellnow. He shows the audience the heartbreak of the the dedicated but passed-over Andrej, whose excessively shiny suit might have been used as the official reason to deny him opportunity (the real reason goes unsaid). Andrej’s anguish, this small moment where hope breaks down, is one of the emotional highlights of the play that does not come in the place of swelling, romantic music.
I would highly recommend checking Once out -- it runs until October 21!