Once: heartfelt and streetwise

Theater Latté Da, through Oct 21

Britta Ollmann and Ben Bakken on ONCE. Photo by Dan Norman.

You know what busking is, don’t you? When a talented (one hopes) musician plays for free on the street, opening his guitar case (or fiddle case, or mandolin case, as the case may be) in hopes of catching a few coins. (In Minneapolis, fwiw, according to a recent Strib article, buskers receive a rather nice salary from the city, the idea being that they add a certain zest and a je-ne-sais-quoi quality to city life.)


It is universally agreed that the worldwide center of street busking is Dublin, Ireland and the affecting Once (at Theater Latté Da, through Oct 21) gives us an Irish busker, the Guy (Once provides no other name). Guy is ready to pack it in. He (inexplicably; he is clearly a mightily talented singer/songwriter) leaves his guitar on the sidewalk and starts to walk away, but he is stopped by “Girl.” A Czech immigrant (“Of course I’m serious. I’m Czech.”), the Girl is wowed by Guy’s intense playing and together they embark on a six day… Well, I hesitate to use the term “affair,” because that implies sweaty sex and heartfelt troth-pledging. Which doesn’t happen.

What does happen, though, in Once, is six days of tenderness, yearning, and love. Girl inspires Guy to finish his brilliant songs, supervises a demo, then sends him off to his girlfriend in New York while she awaits the arrival of her troubled husband (he must be screwed up; what’s he doing in Prague while this beautiful woman is in Dublin?)

This is the great strength of Once, that it refuses to be an ordinary love story. (Beautiful songs by the composer/lyricist team of Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová help enormously.) No hand-in-hand walking off into the sunset. Just pure, and raw, emotion.

Ben Bakken plays the Guy and he is a marvel, tall and handsome, with a contained yet intense presence. His soaring voice cuts through the (sometimes overdone) accompaniment. Sparks fly whenever he’s onstage (and since he’s the lead, he’s onstage a lot). See Once in order to see Bakken.

Less satisfying, imo, is Britta Ollman, whose work I found moody and lugubrious. Be aware, however, that I am a pill, a poop and a puke and that I could easily be wrong about Ollman. Your mileage may definitely vary.

A nice performance is turned in by Reed Sigmund as the music store owner, Billy. Sigmund, the reincarnation of the great Fatty Arbuckle, normally holds forth at the Childrens Theatre. Here he is nearly unrecognizable with his goatee, but there is no mistaking his energy and power. He was definitely an audience-favorite.

And Jay Albright is a hoot and a half as the accordion-playing banker.

It should be noted that Hansard and Irglová originally created their songs for a 2007 film, directed by John Carney. It should further be noted that HowWasTheShow.com reviewed the Broadway tour of Once. Read it here.

Theater Latté Da, under the capable artistic direction of Peter Rothstein (Once‘s director also) here produces a musical as far from the run-of-the-mill, high-kicking chorus-line, anthemic love stories as it’s possible to get. Bravo.

John Olive is a writer living in Minneapolis. His book, Tell Me A Story In The Dark, about the magic of bedtime stories, has been published. John’s The Voice Of The Prairie has been performed 100 plus times and ditto Minnesota Moon and his adaptation of Sideways Stories From Wayside School. Please visit John’s informational website.



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