When you see Once at South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa, you’ll get more than a regional theatre’s spin on the 2015 Tony-winner for Best Musical. Music Director Andy Taylor originated the role he plays in this production, Bank Manager, on Broadway and wrote the song he solos for comic effect during act one. He’s joined by first national tour of Once alums Alex Nee, in the role of Andrej, and Cassidy Stirtz, playing Reza. Since the tour ended earlier this year, SCR’s production, which runs until September 30, may be your best chance to experience the magic these “old pros” create with their cast mates, many of whom are making the SCR debuts. 

It’s been about 10 years since I saw the movie the musical is based on, so I had to refresh my memory after the play to see how closely it adheres to the source material. There are some differences, but the story is essentially the same. I’d argue, though, that in the case of the musical– or at least in the case of this production– the story is like a bonus feature. The music is by far the star, and if you cut every line of dialogue and billed this as “Once: In Concert,” it would not disappoint. 

Each of the actors remains on stage for the bulk of the show, serving double duty as the live orchestra. They play their instruments in character and from the sidelines, some playing multiple instruments. They sing, there’s a little dancing and they engage with the audience before the play begins in earnest. In addition to a couple of numbers they perform before the show technically starts, SCR is inviting the audience to a 30-minute on-stage party before every performance where most of the cast plays Irish songs while the bar that comprises the set is literally open for business. 

Aside from the excellent music and the festive atmosphere, there are some stand-outs amongst the cast I hope to see again. Andy Taylor is terrific in his role, and if he’s the man to thank for the quality of the music, he gets my biggest bravo. Diane King Vann, who plays “Girl’s” mother, has a voice so true and sweet that it carried through the chorus and left me wanting more. Scott Waara’s lines as Da are few, but their emotional impact and honesty resonated well after the lights came up. And, according to those polled, if you aren’t a little in love with Rustin Cole Sailors (Guy) by the end of the show, you’re probably not into dudes. (The photograph with his co-lead Amanda Leigh Jerry, below, is from his personal Instagram.)

When I saw the movie Once, I loved the music, but I always remembered it being very sedate. I had to re-listen to the soundtrack to see whether there were more than just piano and guitar in the original songs, and I was kind of surprised to discover that there were. Something about the presence of the other instruments right there in the room with the leads throughout the play made the music come to life on stage beyond what it did on film. It felt so rich, and it warrants one more acknowledgement of Andy Taylor and a thank you to sound designer Lindsay Jones for mixing it perfectly for the auditorium. 

To illustrate what I mean about the richness, I wanted to share a side-by-side comparison of the best-known song from the show, the one that won the Oscar for Best Song in 2008, “Falling Slowly.” Below are Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova’s original from the film and a geeky bonus version from the London run of the musical performed by Doctor Who‘s old companion, Arthur Darvill

If you love the music of Once even a little, and you’re in the Orange County area, I hope you’ll make the effort to catch SCR’s production before it closes. 

Regular performances run Sept. 9-30. Tickets start at $26. Discounts are available for full-time students, patrons 25 years of age and under, fulltime educators, seniors and groups of 10 or more.

Special Events:

  • Post-Show Discussions: Wednesday, Sept. 13, and Tuesday, Sept. 19. Discuss the play with cast members of Once during free post-show discussions led by South Coast Repertory’s literary team. Segerstrom Stage.
  • Inside the Season: Saturday, Sept. 23, from, 10:30 a.m.-12:30 p.m. Led by members of SCR’s literary staff, this lively two-hour session includes in-depth interviews with cast members and artists from the production staff, revealing secrets and offering insights into SCR’s production of Once. Segerstrom Stage. Tickets are $12 and may be purchased in advance or at the door.

For complete information, visit: www.scr.org.

Leona Laurie