SALT LAKE CITY — The musical Once, music and lyrics by Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová and now playing at Pioneer Theatre in Salt Lake City, is based on a 2007 movie by the same name. The show premiered on Broadway in 2012, winning the Tony Award for best musical that year. The story follows two people known merely as Guy and Girl as they bond over music and past love, life’s disappointments, and the difficulties of love, romance, and family. A beautiful element of this show is that the cast also serves as the orchestra, showcasing the immense talent of the players.
The set of Once is absolutely striking. Scenic Designer Yoon Bae is a world renowned designer working in places like the West End, Norway, Tokyo, Korea, and the USA. Pioneer Theatre is quite lucky to have her make her debut at this theatre in Once. As a musician myself, I can say with authority that the elements she used, such as the image of a piano keyboard in a fence or a guitar-shaped wall are executed exquisitely. The utilization of a turntable has become commonplace and maybe even over done in theatres, but the choices of the turntable in Once are innovative and helpful, with a very poignant moment during the song, “Falling Slowly.” Adding to the ambiance is the lighting design by Kirk Bookman. The elements combine together to make a visually stunning backdrop for the story and sound.
The sound is the true reason to see this show. In the beginning, several ensemble members come out with various instruments including a box that serves as an inventive and interesting percussion instrument. Because the show is set in Dublin, Ireland, the auditorium is full of the echoes of beautiful Celtic melodies. The vast talent of the cast is highlighted throughout the beautiful musical performances vocally and instrumentally, culminating in an a cappella ensemble number, “Gold,” that is aptly named as a precious, shining moment of live performance.
The two main characters, Guy, played by Roderick Lawrence and and Girl, played by Hillary Porter are a joy to watch. Guy starts the story by singing, “Leave,” a song he wrote about his ex-girlfriend. The melancholy tune is captured perfectly by Lawrence’s rich voice and skill on the guitar. Porter matches that beauty of vocals and exquisite piano talent in the second act when she sings, “The Hill.” Adding to the wonder of the evening is the talented Chris Blisset who plays Billy, an owner of a music shop who also serves as a friend and protector of the girl. Blisset has a fantastic voice, great comedic timing, and talent on many strings including guitar, ukulele, mandolin, bass, and various percussion instruments. As Guy comes to the music shop at the bidding of Girl, Blisset provides the comedic humor of a feisty older brother coupled with the talent that is rampant in this fantastic cast. The finale of the first act is a magical combination of the vocals and instrumentals of the cast under the direction of Tom Griffin and the choreography by Lainie Sakakura. Choreography in this production has the added challenge of being combined with the use of the instruments. Sakakura does a fine job of this, often utilizing the instruments as part of the dance, such as in the finale of both acts.
The ensemble is equally talented, with percussionists, violin players, cellists, etc., and a master at the accordion, Mary Fanning Driggs as the girl’s mother. Changes of set are accompanied by the mesmerizing music of the ensemble members, leaving no downtime for the ears and eyes. Learning that the bank manager character, played by Kristopher Saint-Louis, is really a budding musician is an amusing realistic portrayal of those who love the arts but continue to stick with the careers that can be more simply accomplished. The love and challenges of family relationships are also played well between Guy and his father, played by Chris Mixon.
The story of Once is simple but masterfully executed by director Pirronne Yousefzadeh. The concept of love, love lost, love unexplored, and love worked for are all woven into the rich music and interesting dialogue. Music has a way to reach into my soul in a way that most other things cannot, and that is the magic that Pioneer Theatre has capitalized on in Once. Any musician or music aficionado will find much to enjoy in this simple yet profound love story. It looks into the hearts of the musicians and asks why they sing and play and what they are trying to communicate.