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'Once' presented by Gananoque's Thousand Islands Playhouse

Now onstage at the Springer Theatre, 185 South Street, Gananoque.

Credit: Randy deKleine-Stimpson. Pictured at piano: Melissa MacKenzie and on guitar: Tyler Check

Joe Szekeres

A lovely, enchanting story with glorious roof-raising harmonies.

Two things I remember about the touring production of ‘Once’ in Toronto several years ago. One is the gorgeous bar where the story takes place. The audience was allowed to walk on the stage preshow, and at intermission, where drinks were also served. The other was the play’s ‘folksy’ music, but the songs at that time weren’t memorable for me.

Boy, I am glad I gave this story another chance at Gananoque’s Thousand Islands Playhouse.

This time, it's a different visual look for the 2012 Best Musical Tony award-winning musical. Enda Walsh’s Book has a far more significant impact in the intimate Springer Theatre than when I saw the show years ago. About a half-hour before the show begins, Daniel Williston and Haneul Yi bring their guitars out and sing songs. A good choice made here because it’s the kind of music one might hear in an Irish pub when there are solo singers.

‘Once’ is based on the 2007 film of the same title. Set in Dublin, this enchanting story follows a busker (Tyler Check) known as Guy. He sings an unrequited love song on the street. He puts his guitar down when he finishes the song and walks away. Meanwhile, a young Czech girl (Melissa MacKenzie), known as Girl, has been watching and listening to Guy sing on the street. She approaches and tells him he’s pretty good.

Girl then proceeds to ask him many questions. She discovers Guy has written many songs for a former girlfriend (Em Siobhan McCourt), who left him and went to New York. Guy finds it challenging to continue singing and ditches it. The memories are too painful, so he returns to fixing vacuum cleaners at his father’s (Sandy Crawley) repair shop. Girl announces uproariously she needs her vacuum repaired and proceeds to bargain with Guy – repair her vacuum, and she will play piano for him. He approves when he realizes she will not take ‘No’ for an answer.

In five days, the chemistry between Guy and Girl grows as his songs soar to powerful new heights. But in all love stories, some issues arise.

For example, Girl has a daughter, Ivonka (Brea Oatway/Vera Deodato). There is no husband in the picture currently. She lives in a Dublin rooming house with her mother, Barushka (Seana-Lee Wood) and flatmates Reza (Alexa MacDougall), Andrej (Kevin Forster), and Svec (Alex Panneton). Meanwhile, Billy (Daniel Williston), the bar owner where Girl plays music, continues hitting on her because he is also attracted to her.

Joe Pagnan’s clever set design of guitar sections emphasizes one of this production's underlying themes: the love of music remains crucial. The set has two levels and a large backdrop painting of water. At one point, the moon is subtly raised when the stage lights dim. When supporting cast members exit the stage, they sit in chairs on stage right and left, where they will become orchestra members.

Michelle Ramsay’s soft and, at times, shadowy lighting design underscores the various emotional levels of the characters. Sound is crucial in this production, and hearing the lyrics is crucial to furthering the storyline. Designer Brian Kenny accomplishes this task. He also makes me want to listen to the soundtrack again. Ming Wong’s costumes appropriately reflect and establish the characters.

Director and Choreographer Julie Tomaino states the following in her Director’s Programme Note that caught my eye:

“ONCE is a beautiful moment in time…two souls destined to meet have such a profound impact on each other that their lives change forever.”

At first, I thought the play was only just a love story. It still is. This committed ensemble of artists finds the human truth of that love story in song, word, and movement. Guy and Girl begin to discover and feel the emotional chemistry between them.

‘Once’, however, is more than just a love story.

The musical becomes a poignant reminder that we all have had, at least ‘once’ in our lives, an opportunity to connect with another soul, not necessarily in love, that has profoundly impacted us and changed our lives forever.

It’s that very connection with another soul that becomes the ‘beautiful moment in time’ that Tomaino wants the audience to experience. I didn’t have that same experience when I saw ‘ONCE’ years ago. I thank Julie for letting me feel her goal this time. How did I know I felt her objective? A welling in my eyes periodically during the show.

The songs and harmonies gloriously soar to the rafters of the Springer Theatre thanks to Chris Barillaro’s extraordinary music direction that needs to be experienced in person. At one point, Julie Tomaino’s exciting choreography is stunning as the supporting players (who all play their own musical instruments) synchronously move in a rousing dance break that sends the audience into thundering applause at its conclusion.

Tomaino has also directed the production with sensitivity, and it shows in the performances. There is one musical number of the Academy award winning song, ‘Falling Slowly’, where the entire company plays. An absolute joy to sit back, listen and watch this stellar company sing with such class and grace. Breathtaking!

Tyler Check and Melissa MacKenzie offer credible and nuanced performances of depth and conviction. I believed them every minute throughout the show and I found myself rooting for Guy and Girl continuously. Future audiences will discover whether the two follow through on their feelings.

There remains a true gentleness in Sandy Crawley’s Da, Guy’s widower father, that makes me want to go up and hug him. Seana-Lee Wood’s Barushka, Girl’s mother, is so continental European bold that I laughed out loud when she softly kissed Guy when he met her for the first time. The look on Tyler Check’s face says it all. The role of Girl’s daughter Ivonka has been double cast. I think Brea Oatway played the adorable tyke, although I wasn’t sure when I looked at the programme bio. Is it possible to announce who will play Ivonka at future performances before the show, or place a placard somewhere in the lobby with that information?

Alexa MacDougall (Reza), Kevin Forster (Andrej), and Alex Panneton (Svec) deliver three uniquely distinct performances of eccentricities who have been a part of Girl’s life in Dublin. They are also three fantastic musicians enjoying themselves to the maximum as they play in several musical numbers. Daniel Williston is a hilariously and ferociously gruff Billy who’s all bark. Alexa MacDougall’s flirting with Williston and his physical response is perfectly timed comedy needed.

Jon-Alex MacFarlane’s Bank Manager is that tight-fisted executive with no time for anyone who wants to borrow money for a ‘pipe dream’. His daring response of bravado to hearing Guy sing in his office is further perfectly timed comedy. Juno Wong-Clayton is Eamon, that lovely recording studio executive who wants to give someone that ‘break’ needed to get a musical career going.

Final Comments: This production of ‘Once’ was to have been staged in September 2020 at the Playhouse. We all know what happened next for three years.

What’s that adage? ‘Good things come to those who wait’.

I waited for ‘Once’ because I wanted to give it another chance. It’s a good thing I did because it’s a GOOD, no, TERRIFIC show to see.

Don’t wait any longer. See ‘Once’ because it is GOOD, no, TERRIFIC.

Now, time for the film version.

Running time: approximately two hours and 10 minutes with one intermission.

‘Once’ runs until October 22 in the Springer Theatre of Thousand Islands Playhouse, 185 South Street, Gananoque. For tickets, call the Box Office at (613) 382-7020 or visit

‘Once’ Music & Lyrics by Glen Hansard & Markéta Irglová
Book by Enda Walsh
Based on the Motion Picture Written and Directed by John Carney

Directed and choreographed by Julie Tomaino
Musical Direction by Chris Barillaro
Set Designer: Joe Pagnan
Costume Designer: Ming Wong
Lighting Designer: Michelle Ramsay
Sound Designer: Brian Kenny
Stage Manager: Dustyn Wales and Rebecca Eamon Campbell

Performers: Tyler Check, Melissa MacKenzie, Juno Wong-Clayton, Kevin Forster, Alexa MacDougall, Sandy Crawley, Seana-Lee Wood, Alex Panneton, Em Siobhan McCourt, Daniel Williston, Haneul Yi, Jon-Alex MacFarlane, Brea Oatway, Vera Deodato.

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