Theatre review: “Once” at the Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts

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Photos by Caught in the Moment Photography
From left: Aurora Florence (Girl) and Tom Frank (Guy) in Once at the Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts

Once is a musical– produced by 3D Theatricals– in which the music truly takes center stage. The performance, based on a 2007 Irish film of the same name and continuing at the Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts through Oct. 27, is set on a revolving stage and “in the round” seating configuration, allowing the audience to experience it from all angles. A very talented cast of musician-actors inhabit that space fluidly and dynamically, bringing to life an unconventional love story infused with emo folk-rock.

It’s hard to say whether the cast members of Once are better musicians or actors, for they perform excellently as both. At center are Aurora Florence as “Girl” and Tom Frank as “Guy,” she from the Czech Republic making her way in Dublin, and he born and raised in that city, living and working with his recently widowed Da (Scott Waara) repairing Hoovers. But at heart our Guy is a lovelorn, guitar-playing singer, whose ex-girlfriend (Leota Rhodes) left for New York months earlier.

Perhaps because she is seriously Czech (a running joke in the show), Girl takes it upon herself to rescue Guy from quitting singing forever out of despair. Within a week, she has him recording in a studio with a ragtag crew including Girl’s overbearing boss Billy (Chuck Mclane); her Czech roommates Andrej (Andrew Huber), Svec (David Lamoureux, also music director) and Reza (Katherine Washington); as well as the bank manager who loans them the funds (Andy Taylor) and who secretly wishes to be a musician.

The cast plays an impressive array of instruments– guitar, bass, banjo, ukulele, piano, accordion, cello, violin, mandolin and drums– while singing poignantly of life, love and loss. Once’s music spins its threadbare fairytale of a story into a rich and soulful tapestry that envelops its audience. “Falling Slowly” and “Gold” are especially emotionally evocative and duly reprised, with Florence soaring on piano in Girl’s solo “The Hill.”

Effects such as fog and lighting (Jean-Yves Tessier and Andrew Nagy) help create place (including a pier with water) and a faraway atmosphere. Minimal set design (Stephen Gifford) with simple props of chairs, tables and boxes are easy for the cast to rearrange to become the Hoover shop, Guy’s bedroom, Girl’s apartment, the music studio and a Dublin pub. Choreography (Linda Love Simmons) keeps the cast moving while performing and helps convey feeling, notably when Florence, Rhodes and Washington (also dance captain) fluidly intertwine in “The Hill.” Acoustics could be sharper to better appreciate the words, but that may be a function of seat location.

Overall, in Once, director Kari Hayter has seamlessly assembled the puzzle pieces of music and lyrics by Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglová, book by Enda Walsh, outstanding musicianship and confident, comfortable acting by very capable artists to create a tableau of feeling that will linger with you for a long while after.

Once continues at the Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts, 18000 Park Plaza Dr., Cerritos, through Oct. 27, with performances Thursday at 7:30pm, Fridays at 8pm, Saturdays at 2pm and 8pm and Sunday at 2pm. Tickets start at $25. For tickets and information, call the box office at (562) 916-8500 or visit Cerritoscenter.com or 3dtheatricals.org.