Darlinghurst Theatre Company's Once has had three sold-out seasons over three years, and it is now Melbourne's turn to discover why this decade old musical is still a hit with audiences. The story centres on two lives that are drastically changed after a chance encounter between a struggling Irish musician and a Czech piano-player, both of whom are living in Dublin. What follows is a love story that gives them the confidence to take risks and grow, but whether that will be together remains to be seen.
A show like this relies heavily on the chemistry between its two leads so it's fortunate this production has Toby Francis and Stefanie Caccamo reprising their roles from previous seasons, as sparks fly from the second they appear on stage together. This repeat casting has allowed the two to really identify who these people are, and to be extremely comfortable and self-assured in understanding their character's vulnerability, drive and emotions.
Francis is exceptional as The Guy, displaying a rough exterior while simultaneously showing a sensitivity and anxiety about the future. Caccamo is absolutely flawless as The Girl, bringing a radiant energy with every word she utters and every movement she makes. It's a captivating performance and all eyes are on her whenever she's on stage and you can feel the absence when she is not.
The supporting cast (and the 90s fanboy in me was quite excited to be seeing Heartbreak High's Rupert Reid as music store owner Billy) are wonderful, who along with Francis and Caccamo, are also the musicians of the show. Not only are they required to speak lines of dialogue while they play their instruments, but they need to do all this as they run around the stage, jump on and off chairs and tables or be physically moved around. The interludes during the scene transitions are perfectly executed by director Richard Carroll, giving us further details about the world we are in and the community around The Guy and The Girl.
Once is a very intimate play and this intimacy is highlighted and referenced throughout the production. Before it begins, musicians mill around the seating areas as audience members take their seats. They play for us and they talk to us and as such, they make us feel like we too are patrons in the pub. What impresses most about the music and lyrics from Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová, is how specific it is to the setting and the backgrounds of the characters, which allows us to learn so much more about them and connect with them on a deeper level.
The lighting design by Peter Rubie excels by creating poignant moments for the audience to remember in scenes between the leads by darkening the rest of the stage and shining a light on them, as if they are the only people left in the world. Musicians are illuminated by varying spotlights, presenting an almost haunting visual, reminding us of the conflicts The Guy and The Girl have in their lives.
There were some slight intermittent sound issues with mics and sound quality occurring in the early parts of the show but these were quickly resolved and can be put down to opening night kinks that will no doubt have been resolved by now.
The story might not be groundbreaking and perhaps slightly outdated where The Girl's story doesn't receive the same weight as The Guy's, and whose wants can almost be considered secondary to his, but there is a reason why this musical has struck a chord with people. Once is a heartfelt and uplifting experience that explores the power of a love that isn't forever, or even a long time, but is still just as influential in making us appreciate what we have.
Venue: Comedy Theatre, 240 Exhibition Street, Melbourne
Season: Until 4 June | Tues - Sat 7:30pm, Sat 2:00pm, Sun 1:00pm and 6:30pm
Duration: 140 minutes, including a 20 minute interval
Tickets: from $95.00
Bookings: Darlinghurst Theatre Company
Image credit: Robert Catto