Once upon a time, there was a little independent film that took the world by storm, racking up critical accolades and winning a plethora of international awards, including a little trinket called an Oscar. It was the music, by then unknown singer/songwriters Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová, that caused all the commotion. Once was passionate, heartfelt and wildly different from anything that had come before.
The same can be said for Blank Conversations Theatre Company’s latest offering of the eight-time Tony Award-winning 2012 Broadway incarnation of Once, currently playing at the Rio Grande Theatre.
Featuring a terrific ensemble of local musicians, the music takes center stage in the story of a talented Irish songwriter who has given up on love and music, only to be rescued by a girl who inspires him to dream again. Timothy Wilbur gives a winning performance as the likeable but dispirited Dubliner whose strength lies in the honesty of his lyrics and the music he wraps them in. As the quirky Czech immigrant who turns his life around by believing in his gift of song, Natalie McGuire is a likeable muse, though her barely audible delivery can be hard to follow, despite being miked.
Accents can be hard to pull off at the best of times, but when every single actor is required to do so, the result can be babel soup. However, because the music is the most important part of this particular show (the main characters aren’t even given names), the language issues are not serious impediments. Instead, they lend a charming note of authenticity to what is, at its core, an irresistible story of friendship and inspiration between outsiders. The key to understanding not only the dialog, but also the theme of the story is passion. It is clear from the very first note that every member of this ensemble is fully invested in telling that story, and the result is magical.
With bare bones staging, made up of a series of platforms that make good use of the vaulting stage, the only distraction is the murkiness of the lighting. There are times when the main characters are reduced to shadows, while at other times the flashing colors only serve to emphasize the movements of the ever-present musicians. It isn’t until one of the actors begins to speak that we find our focus, and in a way that adds to the everyday allure of these characters, by making them blend in, but it can also be frustrating to the viewer trying to follow the story.
Even so, the story itself will win audiences over. In the end, Once serves the purpose of illustrating a new phase of regional theatre being presented by young, passionate performers injecting much-needed enthusiasm into the mix. Longtime theatergoers take note. If you haven’t experienced Blank Conversations Theatre Company yet, you’re missing out on a revolution in the making.
Once continues its run at the Rio Grande Theatre weekends through Sunday, January 28th. For more information, or to purchase tickets, visit the website at www.blankconversations.org.