WHITE RIVER JUNCTION – What makes the Irish so attractive to Americans? Perhaps it’s that, in their stories at least, they try so hard, but never quite make it. It’s just so relatable.
“Once,” the 2012 hit Broadway musical, tells such a story and Northern Stage opened a stylish and musically effervescent production at the Barrette Center for the Arts, that was full of Irish heart. And while the music and dance overpowered the action occasionally, they were superlative.
This musical, in which the actors double as the pit band, is based on the 2007 film of the same by John Carney and, like the film, the music and lyrics are by Glen Hansard and Markéta Iglová, including the Academy Award-winning theme song “Falling Slowly.” Enda Walsh wrote the book for the musical, which opened on Broadway in 2012, winning eight Tony Awards, including Best Musical.
The story is very much an Irish love story in that it doesn’t end quite “happily ever after.” “Guy,” a down and out songwriter, and “Girl,” a Czech immigrant meet on the street in Dublin’s world of buskers. (These are the only names that they are referred to by.)
Despite Guy’s sullen reticence, ever-enthusiastic Girl falls in love with his songs, and begins badgering him to do something with them. After Guy’s unwanted advances blow up in his face, they begin to get to know each other. His girlfriend has left him and moved to New York, and her husband and father of her child is absent – but she’s not looking for romance.
Still, the situation, including Girl’s wonderfully bizarre family, as well as – against all odds – making of a demo, beg for lots of singing and dancing. What gives the show its depth though is the real tenderness between several of the characters – particularly Guy and Girl. And you’ll never guess the bittersweet ending.
Directed by the Carol Dunne, the Upper Valley professional theater company’s producing artistic director, Northern Stage’s production was certainly fun, but it was also quite touching. Music direction by Robbie Cowan and choreography by Kyle Brand were imaginative and joyful. In fact, it was quite an extravaganza.
Simply stellar was Lily Talevski. Not only did she give Girl a nuanced depth, she sang with the voice and heart of a torch singer, and played a mean Mendelssohn on piano. It proved impossible not to come under Talevski’s heartwarming spell.
While more predictable, Thom Miller’s Guy was fine, sympathetic and a passionate singer. A quiet outdoor scene between Guy and Girl, toward the end, was simply beautiful.
Daria Ballou was endearing, and a fine fiddler, as Girl’s daughter Ivonka. (She alternates performances with Paige Falcone who plays cello.) The remainder of the excellent cast plays several characters, each of which were well delineated.
Two issues occasionally got in the way of the story. Occasionally the music and dancing became relentless, and some of the comic touches were simply too cute. Still, these are quibbles.
Alexander Woodward’s wonderfully atmospheric set, lit by Travis McHale, took the action out of the customary but irrelevant bar, and placed it on the street, home to buskers. And Allison Crutchfield’s attractive costumes felt just right.
Northern Stage’s production is a lot more than a great song and dance show. It’s delightful storytelling.