Full disclosure. I never knew, until told upon leaving the theatre on Saturday night, that ‘Once’ was once, was first, a feature film, a budget indie movie turned blockbuster hit. Maybe I’ve been living under a rock, but no, no idea.

Another disclosure, I like bands, musicians, more of a gig-goer. As theatregoers go, a novice really. So a treat to make a first-time visit to the ASB Waterfront Theatre on Saturday’s packed opening night of a local production of the award-winning Broadway musical about a lovelorn Dublin busker and the girl who lights his spark again, for love, and life.

Directed by West Aucklander Jesse Peach, a resident of London in recent years, he’s brought together a superb cast of musical-actors, or should that be actor-musicians, who seamlessly sing, act, play their instruments, dance  about the stage sometimes all together, sometimes alone, they’re even the stage-hands, moving set-pieces and props in and out of the shadows between scenes. It’s truly all hands on deck.

The set is remarkable in that there isn’t much of one. All action revolves on or around a revolving in-set circle centre-stage. Ingenious and somewhat fraught but I didn’t see one misstep the whole evening, which if you go and see for yourself is remarkable in itself as there is so much music and movement going on. A testament to the stage design, professionalism and intensive rehearsals that must’ve got cast and crew to this point. Director Jesse Peach only returned from London two or three weeks prior to opening night though the show’s been a year in the making. Casting most difficult, finding enough good local actors who can also play music live on stage exceptionally well at the same time as acting. A very special skill-set. He found them alright.

Taking our seats five minutes prior to the show starting, we walked in to a handful of the ‘players’ carousing on and off the stage, armed with all manner of musical instruments and cheek, some wending their way into the audience, drawing us into a jolly Dublin pub scene. Had we got the time wrong? Were we late? Thankfully, all part of the preamble/warmup to the show proper, and a good few laughs were had thanks mainly to doyenne of  stage and song Jackie Clarke, cheekily and cheerfully rebuking members of the audience from the stage in her best Irish accent. Hard-as-nails publican with a heart of gold. It made for a novel, fun and engaging start to the night’s proceedings. We were well and truly warmed up by the warm-up.

’Once’ tells the story of an Irish busker and his chance encounter with a Czech solo mother who’ve both been in and out of love. He’s miserable and missing his beloved who’s left Dublin, and him, for New York. She’s a dour yet idealistic single mother who sees and nurtures the talent she sees in the aspiring musician, who’s feeling sorry for himself and making ends meet working for his ‘Da’, fixing vacuum cleaners. It’s a simple story of yearning and heartbreak, of unrequited love, plans gone by the wayside, dreams unfulfilled, touching and a little tragic, fearless and funny, a reminder it’s never too late to find your joie de vivre if not the love of your life.

Starring in the lead roles are singer-songwriter Lisa Crawley (‘Girl”)  and Adam Ogle (‘Guy’) – nailing their Czech and Dublin accents respectively, warm and likeable characters – perhaps she more than he at the start. He’s a bit of a sorry-for-himself eejit to be honest when they first encounter one another. She soon sorts him out. Blunt, direct, ever the optimist despite her own sorry affairs of the heart.  The pair’s outstanding performances are matched by the rest of the cast of 12 professional musicians/actors who drew the audience into the story and their world effortlessly and seamlessly on Saturday night despite the myriad roles all played. It could’ve been a bit of a mess, a shambles. But to me, the story mostly flowed seamlessly, not missing a beat – captivating, entertaining, satisfying.

Shot through with melancholy, it was more than anything joyful and uplifting and a bloody good laugh on occasion – full credit to the cast. They played it well. And they played their instruments well. Lisa Crawley on piano with her heavenly voice. Adam Ogle on guitar and in great voice too. Priya Sami, one third of the Sami Sisters, was a sweetheart with her ukulele as one of ‘Girl’s flatmates “Reza’, bringing some sass and sizzle to the stage. Hats off to the whole ensemble.

With very little in the way of sets or lighting, with all songs sung and music played live by the actors on stage, there was an elegance in the simplicity of the production. An intimacy, a warmth. A closeness and engagement with the audience which could have easily not come off in such a big space. But it did. I was sat up the back but felt as if I were almost right up there on stage – invited, involved, enchanted.

Limited two-week run. Go see it. For tickets: https://www.atc.co.nz/peach-theatre-company/2019/once/

~Karen McCarthy