Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

July 11, 2022

REVIEW: Berkshire Theatre Festival, “Once”

Berkshire Theatre Festival, Pittsfield, MA
through July 16, 2022
by Stuart W. Gamble

Based on the Oscar-winning film written and directed by John Carney and the winner of 8 Tony Awards, “Once" makes its Berkshire debut at the Colonial Theatre. And what a show it is, indeed! From the sweeping, pre-show fiddling, dancing, and singing to lovely Irish shanties to its contemplative ending with the cast singing on the Cliffs of Moher, Greg Edelman’s sparse, yet glowingly beautiful show, is a feast for the ears and eyes.

Set in the early years of the 21st Century (compact discs play a crucial role in the story), Edna Walsh’s adaptation of the film centers on a chance meeting between Guy (David Toole) and Girl (Andrea Goss) on the streets of Dublin, Ireland. We learn that Guy is distraught over the break-up with his girlfriend (EJ Zimmerman), while Girl, we later learn, is estranged from her husband in the Czech Republic, leaving her to care for her young daughter Ivanka (Ella Fish).

After Guy sings “Leave,” declaring his wish to divorce himself from his guitar and singing forever, Girl insists: “Don’t be mad. You Must Sing!” And so he does, warbling out the well-known and heartfelt song “Falling Slowly”. With perseverance and prodding, Girl eventually is able to rent a recording studio for a day so Guy can record his music.

The central characters and music are both gritty and gossamer in the way in which they expose their souls to the audience through words, emotion, and especially the music that envelops them both. One character states: “You can’t have a city without music”.  since the music in “Once” forms the structure of the play. It transitions one scene to the next, defining the characters, and touching the hearts and minds of the audience.

Both Toole and Goss are wonderful in the leads, simply named Guy and Girl, as they can represent anyone, anywhere, who has been touched, broken, and reborn by love. Toole is especially good in evoking the woeful demeanor of his character. At one moment of heightened emotion, I saw the most tears fall from his eyes than I have ever seen from a performer on stage. Goss has a challenging role as she guards her feelings by repeatedly saying (to the audience’s delight): “I am always serious. I am Czech.” But she releases her aching hurt in both “If You Want Me” and “The Hill”.

The supporting cast is uniquely versatile, both as performers and musicians, transforming themselves in an instant from anonymous instrumentalists (banjo, recorder, guitar, accordion, fiddle) to various characters. Kurt Zischke (Da), Shani Hadjian (Barushka), Benjamin Camenzuli (Andrej), Will Boyajian (Svec) and especially Adam Huel Potter (Billy) and Andy Taylor (Bank Manager) dynamically display their comedic and musical skills as both Irish and Czech denizens of Dublin.

Elevia Bovenzi Blitz’ earthy yet vibrant costumes complement the performers as do the dilapidated building facades of scenic designer Josafath Reynoso. Mathew E. Adelson’s moody stage colors maintain the melancholy tone.

Despite its superlative production values and marvelous performances, it was rather strange that audience members did not applaud after such stellar songs as “Gold” and “Sleeping” ended. Perhaps they were too mesmerized by "Once's" haunting mood to acknowledge its greatness.