On Theater: 'Once' is one of a kind

“Once” is a Broadway musical that dares to be different. Not only dares but demands. Stridently. At the top of its voice.

This multi-award-winning show from 2013, now on stage at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts, goes out of its way to avoid musical production cliches, sometimes to the confusion of the viewer. It starts out several minutes before curtain time by inviting audience members up on stage to mix with the cast.

There's no orchestra in “Once” because one is not needed when every cast member carries a musical instrument. Well, “carries” may be the wrong choice of words since the female lead is a pianist, but each cast member is musically equipped.

Can you remember a show in which the romantic leads do not exchange a kiss? That's also the case in “Once,” unless you count a brief one-way peck at the beginning of the relationship between an Irish musician and a Czech immigrant lass who sort of fall in love even though each has another attachment.

Oh, and when the young lady confers with her Czech mates, they speak English and the subtitles above them are spelled out in Czech. For the benefit, possibly, of all the Eastern Europeans in the audience.

Add to all this a plotline that doesn't hit a crescendo at the show's end but just sort of peters out, and you've got a definitely different production that will bring some theatergoers to their feet and push others toward the exit.

The role of the male lead, known as Guy, is divided alternately between top-billed Ryan Link and Alex Nee, who performed on opening night. Nee brings a youthful intensity to the character as he strives to focus more clearly on his future as a musician and singer. And he is splendid on both counts.

Into his life comes a young lady billed only as Girl, a shimmering Dani de Waal, who proceeds to take over Guy's career without initially offering any romantic attachment. De Waal is a provocative force of nature possessing equal measures of command and cuteness, and she comes up with the show's biggest surprise halfway through the action.

Other members of the large ensemble — seated on either side of the stage during the show — drop in and out of the action, adding a strong Irish lilt to the show, which is set primarily in a Dublin tavern. Its proprietor — now played by Evan Harrington after Matt Wolpe handled the first three performances — can get on your nerves in a hurry with his caustic personality.

Raymond Bokhour projects a scholarly calm as Guy's bewhiskered mandolin-playing father. Donna Garner increases the energy level as Girl's accordionist mother. Matt DeAngelis is a manic Czech drummer, and Benjamin Magnuson is a sympathetic bank officer who grabs his guitar and joins the band.

You'll either love “Once” or you'll loathe it, but it's a show that should be seen, at least “once,” at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts.

If You Go

WHAT: "Once"

WHERE: Segerstrom Center for the Arts, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays; 2 and 7:30 Saturdays; 1 and 6:30 Sundays until Aug. 31

COST: Tickets start at $25

CALL: (714) 556-2787

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