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Once Casts Its Gaelic Spell at the Hangar

Once, book by Enda Walsh, music & lyrics by Glen Hansard & Markéta Irglová; Hangar Theatre, through July 17 (hangartheatre.org)
The Hangar’s current production of the musical Once dances on the air as if it arose from the land itself (acknowledged before the curtain as Gayogo̱hó:nǫ’ (Cayuga) land). A summer mist, dotted with fireflies, a whisper of melody, a drone of harmony, the wash of desire, loneliness, hope and a climbing, irrepressible joy.
Rooted in the patois and streets of modern Dublin, the bawdy and melancholy rooted so deep in Ireland’s music and myth meet the dialect and wishes of a loosely related group of Czech migrants. A simple tale—Guy (a local street busker) meets Girl (an immigrant street vendor)—gets a bittersweet and surprisingly moving twist: for some romances are temporary yet with a current as deep and demanding as Dublin’s river Liffey; or perhaps these romances take place in some fairy circle outside of time.
Adapted from John Carney’s award-winning indie film, the stage version maintains the basic plot while making the characters double as the orchestra (or more fittingly, the band: this is roots/folk/rock that swings between arching ballads, lullabies and dance trance and stomp). Unlike John Doyle’s famous minimalist music revisions using actor-instrumentalists (Company, Sweeney Todd, etc.), Once is built from the ground up to be a capacious ensemble of instrumentalists-singer-actors who would be right at home at the Finger Lakes Grass Roots festival.
In this instant, bringing the instruments onstage and into the hands of the actors, ties Once to ancient traditions of story-telling and oral culture, enhanced by Enda Walsh’s smart, spare book.
The Hangar’s new Artistic Director, Shirley Serotsky, helms the show with a sure, attentive touch. Serotsky has a gorgeous sense of space, conjuring streets and interiors, and, more subtly, emotional shifts with her staging. A chiaroscuro of moods suffuses the evening, delicate intimacy gives way to boisterous bonhomie as the storytelling partners the lush music. Fatima Sowe refracts the energy of the 13 strong cast into swirls of movement in the scene transitions, slowing and speeding the bodies as they fall into the next beat.
The original orchestration by Martin Lowe builds off the simple duo of guitar and piano that anchors Hansard and Irglová’s enchanting song-writing, weaving in violin, accordion, banjo, cello, flute, bass, winds, penny whistle, harmonica, melodica, ukulele, mandolin, drums and even bodhran (an Irish drum) and cajon (a Peruvian wooden percussive box); it’s superbly realized by music director Christopher “Red” Blisset.
As Guy, Heath Saunders cuts into the ballads with ache and yearning, modulating easily to gentler caressing, even crooning tones or letting loose with rocking snarls. They alternate comical diffidence with tentative cock-strutting as they are confused, allured, and eventually immersed in a romance that is as much artistic as hormonal with the Girl (Julie Benko.)
This Girl refuses to be boxed in: her earnest directness both challenges and disarms these Irishmen, but she can flit instantly to guarded. Benko hits these character notes precisely, shaping a woman who mixes the practical with the ethereal. Her stunning voice dances with the songs, soaring and opening as needed then landing gently as a butterfly.
Craig Macdonald’s Da ignites laughs and pathos as a man of few words but deep feelings in brief scenes with his son; while Heidi Hayes is a fascinating mix of laconic and fiery as Girl’s Czech mother, Barushka. At the performance I saw, Kestrel Lavine winningly played Girl’s silent daughter, Ivanka (Olive Haynes alternates.)
Around this familial core are arranged the colorful and more broadly comical Dublin inhabitants. Chief among these is the music store owner, BIlly, the Girl’s self-appointed protector. quick-fused yet gruffly gentle, brought to blustering full-blooded life by Evan Harrington. As the bumbling wannabe rocker Banker, Blisset is his delicious foil. Trevor Lindley Craft and Chibueze Ihuoma portray Girl’s Czech flatmates, the dangling, inquisitive Svec and the more inward and easily lovesick Andrej.
Rounding out the superb ensemble are Linda Bard, David Corlew, Nicole D’Angelo and Tony Moreno, all spot on.
Debra Kim Sivigny’s unobtrusive costumes ably denote character and allow for flowing movement. John D. Alexander lights with a sense of atmosphere and place. Most striking is the elegant simplicity of Steven TenEyck’s setting: a planked platform with central stepped platform, flanked by open green-blue metalwork, suggesting a jewel box open to the surrounding sky and trees. Dropping the original setting of an Irish pub, TenEyck and Serotsky have located this enchanted tale in an abstraction of the music shop.
Let the Hangar’s Once cast its beguiling Gaelic spell on you. It will gladden your heart (and perhaps leave a tear in your eye.)

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