Music is a gathering place that can be big enough to accommodate a crowd or small enough to nestle two yearning hearts.
Rarely has this been as poignantly conveyed as in the 2007 movie "Once," with its tale of two bruised souls who, through music, meet, bond and transform each other.
When adapted for the stage a few years later, their story became somewhat over-explained and needlessly padded but overall remained a charmer. The Broadway production won eight 2012 Tony Awards, including best musical, and ran for nearly three years. The national tour played Hollywood, San Diego and Costa Mesa in 2014.
As the show transitions from touring to regional life, Costa Mesa's South Coast Repertory has grabbed hold of it, giving it a joyous production that looks, sounds and feels very much like Broadway's yet resonates with an emotional truth all its own.
At the core of "Once" is a little everyday miracle: Two people remind each other to hope.
On a Dublin street, a busking singer-songwriter finds himself face to face with a Czech woman. Drawn by the raw honesty of his song, she begins to pepper him with questions. As they warm to each other, they discover that for both, life has stopped short. They begin to share songs (for as it turns out, she plays piano and composes), and in the music, they unite in ways that their circumstances otherwise prevent.
John Carney shot the movie in 17 days, largely on the streets of Dublin and in glum apartments. His stars were the musicians who'd written the compelling songs, Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová. They communicated largely through vocal or facial expression, not words.
The team assembled for the stage adaptation was the out-of-left-field combination of Irish playwright Enda Walsh, given to inky-dark dystopias, and the English combo of director John Tiffany and choreographer Steven Hoggett, who in the international touring phenomenon "Black Watch" devised a gestural movement language to express the regimentation and brotherhood of life in the military.
Their original production used a pub, that Irish temple to music, as a sort of spiritual backdrop to the story. It was stocked with a ready supply of supporting musicians: the locals who hung out there to jam. As needed, they also stepped in to portray supporting characters.
The SCR presentation — directed by Kent Nicholson (SCR's "The Light in the Piazza") and choreographed by Kelly Todd (Chance Theater's "West Side Story") — follows this convention. So each member of the cast must be multitalented: able to play instruments, sing, act and move expressively. Several are veterans of the "Once" Broadway or touring companies, including music director Andy Taylor, who can be spotted playing cello or guitar and portraying a bank manager. They play the instruments of home musicians: guitar, fiddle, mandolin, ukulele, melodica, accordion, piano, beat box and so on.
Ralph Funicello's set is a dark-wood den of a pub, with tall shelves of bottles framing a massive mirror, which provides a second perspective on all of the music-making.
Half an hour before performance time, the musicians gather for a song-swapping session. Audience members with a prepaid wristband can join them onstage for a drink and up-close experience.
Once the visitors have been sent to their seats and the story begins, Lap Chi Chu uses light to carve spaces for the tale's various locales, which are constructed of the chairs and tables at hand. The sparing use of movement is built of gestures suggested by the nature of the music, as in the original.
Portraying the busker, Rustin Cole Sailors channels volumes of meaning through songs that are not easy to sing, punching high as the music reaches its peak and sustaining stratospheric falsettos. With his floppy dark hair and brooding good looks, he's genetically blessed with the building material for a good, old-fashioned romance. He may be all brusque despondency at first, but once the young immigrant breaks through his wall, he radiates gentlemanly warmth and quiet amusement.
Amanda Leigh Jerry has the trickier role. Much more than in the film, the young Czech woman has been made the instigator, almost as if she's an angel — a distaff version of Clarence in "It's a Wonderful Life." Much more also is made of her saintly, old-world sense of morality, as well as the sadness that subtly tinges her sunny disposition. Jerry manages to lighten this leadenness, and vocally she's a soulful partner to Sailors.
The folky songs are at once ethereal and messily flesh-and-blood. "Falling Slowly," the musical centerpiece, is as lovely as ever, each phrase rising, cresting and tumbling, then starting the climb again to convey a sense of the song's key phrase, "raise your hopeful voice."
Several of the supporting characters have been amplified beyond the movie. This is especially true of the music shop owner who lets the young woman drop in to play piano. He's now a comic blunderer who dispenses romantic advice, even though he doesn't seem to have had much luck with it himself. Though the character is a distraction, Nicholas Mongiardo-Cooper acquits it nicely.
Particularly wonderful in smaller roles and in the background wall of sound are Cassidy Stirtz and Alex Nee as Czech friends of the young woman's and Scott Waara as the busker's dad.
A marvelous result of the pub-band backing is that solos or duets grow in expressiveness as other instrumentalists gently join. It's the magic of song made manifest: Individuals inspire one another, and as they add their talents to the mix, they become a community. When audience members find themselves in tears without understanding why, it's probably due to a tiny marvel such as this.
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Where: South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa
When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays, 2:30 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2:30 and 7:30 p.m. Sundays; ends Sept. 30.
Price: $36-$88 (subject to change)
Info: (714) 708-5555, www.scr.org
Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes
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