Arden Theatre’s ‘Once,’ as a musical reborn

In Arden Theatre Company's production of the musical

In Arden Theatre Company's production of the musical "Once," from left: Ken Allen Neely, Charlie DelMarcelle (back to camera) and Katherine Fried. ( Ashley Smith/Wide Eyed Studios)

You’ll find all sorts of things to admire about Arden Theatre’s production of “Once,” and chief among them is this: The whiny musical actually works. Forget about the repeated minor chords and grossly melancholy lyrics – they’re still there and if you listen carefully to the songs you’ll wince. But oh, what a gorgeous staging and a sensible interpretation can do to make a sour show attractive. “Once” is the Arden’s own special brand of lemonade.

When I saw the show on Broadway and then in its national tour, fatuous songs with lyrics like “I’m sorry that you had to see the strength inside me burning” made me want to follow the brow-beaten command of the show’s most popular song: “Take this sinking boat and point it home – you’ve still got time.” At the Arden’s opening on Wednesday, I wanted to spend even more time with these characters and the charming actors who played them. That surprised me, not least because the Tony-award winning musical is already about an hour longer than its source, an 85-minute film.

In this story, Guy (as he’s called in the script) is about to throw away his guitar because the music he sings on the streets of Dublin is taking him nowhere. He meets a Czech immigrant named Girl – in fact, he’s sort of accosted by her – and she persuades him to keep the guitar and let her hear his songs. Guy and Girl are both damaged in love, with partners who’ve left them for reasons never fully divulged.

Girl instantly becomes Guy’s strength, telling him his songs need to be heard (the score is by Glenn Hansard and Markéta Irglová) “for you, for me, for anyone who has lost a love.” If that’s so, they ought to be more healing than this stuff, about love, longing, loss, languor and letdown – the five lugubrious Ls of “Once.”  But here‘s the catch: On Broadway and in the national tour, the heart that “Once” wears awkwardly on its sleeve was not just metaphor. It was an actual mess. In the Arden production, directed with much thought and fresh eyes by the company’s leader Terrence J. Nolen, the heart beats and calls you to pick up on the rhythm. How did he do it?

For one thing, he assembled a cast fully in line with his vision. “Once” has always been a showcase for talent, beginning with its notable scriptwriter Enda Walsh and ending on stage with an entire cast of actor-musicians who compose their own orchestra. Arden’s terrific cast sounds as good as it acts, and acts as well as acting gets.

Guy and Girl are Ken Allen Neely and Katherine Fried, and they have an animal magnetism that seems to give off sparks, even when – no, especially when – they sing some of the show’s dreary songs together. Fried (also playing piano) has the perfect air of mystery, and in the role of the young Czech woman she’s convincing not only in her accent but in her presence. Her hair, her stare, the way she carries herself – it all seems distinctly Eastern European. Neely, who plays the guitar his character wants to toss away, is a lean, handsome six-foot-three actor who radiates vulnerability. When he walks around the playing space gracefully singing the show’s songs that sometimes come out of nowhere, his mere presence commands your attention. Caution: At some point in the show you may feel like running onto the Oriental-rug-covered set just to give the two of them an encouraging hug.

And that’s what “Once” was aiming for, I think, on Broadway and in its tour. Nolen makes this relationship between the cast and the audience possible in large part by pulling “Once” off a traditional stage and putting it on a floor-level playing space nearly surrounded by an audience looking down on it. That’s not unusual for the Arden, but it’s especially effective here — many aisles come down from the top rows and the cast members use them all to tell the story. When they’re spaced all over these aisles and working as a singing orchestra, you fully realize the power of surround sound.

Ryan Touhey is the musical director, and he’s lucky to work with such local lights as Scott Greer, Greg Wood, Charlie DelMarcelle and the composer-actor Alex Bechtel. Emily Mikesell is especially fine in a smaller role as the imposing mother of Girl, but no one has a small role in “Once,” which calls on its cast to be many people plus a showy band. (Come early for pre-show musical performances.)

The actor, singer and director Steve Pacek can now add “choreographer” to his bio – Nolen hired him to make “Once” move. It seems to move constantly, putting you inside the mechanics of what feels like an intricate clock. This is often impressively done in near darkness, as scenes change and the cast of 13 swirls around to go out of the playing space and often up the aisle rows. Again, we feel part of the action, part of the plot and – dare I write it? – part of the show’s pain.

This is the first time seeing “Once” that I’ve begun to understand that pain, which is fairly unexamined in songs that simply tell you it’s there. Nolen’s production is an intriguing paradox: It’s rife with lyrics of desolation and two characters trapped in several ways, yet it seduces us with warmth.

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“Once” is extended through Oct. 28 at Arden Theatre Company, Second Street just north of Market. 215.922.1122 or ardentheatre.org.

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