"ONCE," through March 2, Pioneer Theatre Company, 300 S. 1400 East (801-581-6961 or pioneertheatre.org); running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes (one intermission)
SALT LAKE CITY — From the pre-show right to the last notes of the reprise of "Falling Slowly,” the cast of Pioneer Theatre Company's "Once" displayed incredible skill, emotion and a genuine love for their craft.
For those new to “Once,” the Sundance film turned Tony-winning musical portrays the star-crossed love story of Guy, an Irish street musician played here by Roderick Lawrence, and Girl, a musically-inclined Czech woman played by Hillary Porter. The musical follows the two from their chance meeting — just as Guy is ready to give up on music — through recording a demo album that he is able to take to New York.
After a short ensemble scene, PTC's production opened on Friday night with Lawrence singing the solo number "Leave.” With nothing but his voice and guitar, he created an intimate and powerful feeling that captivated the entire theater. This song set the standard for his performance the entire night, as his raw and beautiful portrayal of a man close to giving up may have been the strongest performance of the show.
But every bit his equal, Porter's Girl was also compelling. Particularly in the number “The Hill,” where her vocals were as captivating as her expressive piano playing.
Girl’s character is passionate and straightforward, and she wasted no time saying what she meant and demanding what she wanted from the moment she met Guy. At first, her dialogue and pushy personality felt abrupt — as, it should be noted, some audience members may find the whole cast's strong language off-putting. Both Porter and Lawrence leaned into the awkward moments of their first encounter so the audience was just as surprised by Girl as Guy was. But the awkwardness faded as the audience came to further understand and love her character just as Guy got to know and love her.
Like the two leads, the skills of the ensemble were impressive, to say the least. The entire cast sang, acted and played at least one instrument throughout the course of the production. Some of the most enjoyable moments of the show were the musical interludes as the cast switched from one scene to another. During these moments it felt like the performers were having the time of their lives playing together. The irresistible beat along with the choreography made you want to dance right along with them.
"Once" is a bit of an emotional rollercoaster, and the over-the-top ensemble characters added a variety and lightness that kept the audience laughing between the heart-wrenching songs from the leads. However, the ensemble was far more than comic relief, and every single person on stage was hugely talented.
One of the production's standout moments came when the whole cast sang a cappella on the lyrical and powerful song “Gold.” Their harmonies were enough to send chills down your spine. Similarly, the backing vocals of Réza, played by EJ Zimmerman, in “If You Want Me” were truly haunting. Thanks to guidance from both director Pirronne Yousefzadeh and music director Tom Griffin, PTC's "Once" showcased this musically talented cast — and it was fitting that a story so much about music exuded such a passion and joy for it.
Along with the performers, the creative team also left its mark on this production. Often, theater companies give “Once” a very sparse set. However, scenic director Yoon Bae employed a background of cityscapes and rooms with elements that looked like piano keys and parts of a guitar that were arresting without being overdone. The multiple set changes risked being a distraction, but they worked in well with Lainie Sakakura's choreography and the musical transitions. Bae's well-thought-out set design was certainly more involved than past productions, but never detracted from the beautiful simplicity of the story.
PTC's "Once" was a wonderful display of staggering talent that exuded the same passion for music that runs through the musical's story. If you love music as the cast so clearly does, this is a show for you.
Content advisory: "Once" contains strong language throughout the show.