Multi- Tony Award-winning musical, “Once,” isn’t merely a musical play. It’s an experience, meant for theatergoers to share, even before the show begins.
Theatergoers are invited on stage, to designer Bob Crowley’s authentic-looking, semi-circular Irish pub, adorned with several mirrors on the walls, and musical instruments lining the perimeter.
Along the back wall is an elongated bar, where patrons may buy beer and wine, while browsing, looking at the musical instruments. They’re warned to not touch the music makers, including the piano centrally located on stage.
People mull together, asking questions, reminiscing about instruments they perhaps played or would have liked to learn.
As the audience gets seated and settled in, the cast, actors and singers who collectively providing the musical accompaniment, enters the stage, playing lively Irish “kitchen” tunes, typical of a neighborhood Irish pub. Some perform solos, with others accompanying them. ‘Tis a sight for sore eyes and happy ears, for sure.
This national touring cast does it all, and they’re terrific. They appear to be having fun on stage, emanating their enthusiasm and energy.
Their warmth and joie de vivre reverberates throughout the Citi Shubert Theatre, even when Scott Waara performs a doleful ditty about love lost.
During intermission, the audience is welcomed back on stage, for drinks and a closer look, making them feel even closer to the action.
Indeed, ‘tis a catchy ruse that works. We feel kinship with this combination of Dublin pub musicians and Czechoslovakian immigrants, especially thirtysomething Dublin street musician referred to as Guy (engaging Stuart Ward), who’s about to give up on his dream of becoming a singer-songwriter. Guy works at his father’s vacuum cleaner repair shop, until he encounters Girl, (Dani de Waal), a young Czechoslovakian immigrant, in thrall with Guy’s love songs. She’s emotionally moved, especially after hearing Guy’s song about being broken-hearted. She’s determined to become his muse and cheerleader, tenaciously refusing to let him give up.The two also fall love.
All action occurs in one week.
Guy wrote his love songs for his longtime, former girlfriend, who left him and moved to New York City to seek fame on her own.
Boston theatergoers are happily surprised, seeing award-winning, versatile performer Erica Spyres, who portrays a pub melodic performer and also Guy’s former girlfriend. Spyres provides lovely harmony and marvelous musical accompaniment on her fiddle and makeshift percussion.
Girl, mother of little Ivanka, (Sophie Knapp), She offers to play piano for Guy, in exchange for his repairing her vacuum cleaner. She also helps him secure a bank loan to get to New York.
Luckily, the banker is a frustrated singer-musician, who sings offkey, but plays the guitar well, so he’s invited to join the band.
However, feisty band player Billy (Evan Harrington), who owns the shop where they’re rehearsing, has had poor luck with banks, and attacks the banker.
Meantime, Girl and Guy are falling in love. She tells him so in Czech, and in a song she sings when she’s alone, at the piano. However, her translation to him says, “It’s Raining”. In the meantime, Guy declares his love for Girl.
Guy wants Girl and Ivanka to move to New York with him; but Girl refuses. Ivanka’s father wants to try getting together again. For Ivanka’s sake, she says she must consider it.
Before leaving for New York, Guy calls his old girlfriend who’s happy to hear from him, and Girl gets a big present - a new piano - from Guy.
Does Guy succeed with his new song, and former girlfriend, or does he run back to Girl’s arms? Does she return to her husband? We don’t know.
But we’re acutely aware of the plot’s focus - follow your dream - and how the power of music connects us all.
BOX INFO: Two-act, multi Tony Award-winning musical, book by Enda Walsh, based on the 2007 film by John Carney.Lyrics by Glen Hansard and Marketa Inglova. Also winner of Drama Desk Award and 2013 Grammy Award for Best Musical Theater Album. Returns to Boston by popular demand, through Dec. 27, at Citi Performing Arts Center, Citi Shubert Theatre, Tremont St., Boston. Tickets, $48-$98. Call 866-348-9738 or visit www.citicenter.org.
Hailed as the “what’s next in American theater,” Spiegel’s play, which she wrote in her senior year at Yale University, is a potential harbinger of plays involving raw, teen-age angst that’s touching, but not revelatory. Years ago, young women who got “in trouble” desperately resorted to even more dangerous ways to abort, oftentimes resulting in their deaths.
Times were different then. Families and clergymen were intolerant of out-of-wedlock pregnancies. In “Dry Land,” (well directed by Steven Bogart) the plot revolves around popular Florida high school swim team member, Amy, (Stephanie Recio), and new student-swim team member, Ester, (Eva Hughes), who’s trying to fit in with Amy and the “in” crowd.
The two teens linger in set designer Courtney Nelson’s spotless, antiseptic-looking, high school locker room, as Amy commands a reluctant Ester to punch her in the stomach, over and over again, harder and harder. Amy refuses to seek help from adults, and wants to get rid of her problem on her own. Portraying Amy, a compelling Recio withstands hard blows to her abdomen, enough to make theatergoers seated on three sides of the Plaza Theatre cringe with each punch.
Bound by their secret, the girls share other facts about themselves. Calling herself a slut, Amy boasts about her sexual exploits, how she hated being a cheerleader, and switched to swimming.But Amy isn’t all she professes. Not really.
Ester’s secrets are more pragmatic, less sensational, yet painful. She’s level-headed, sincere, focused on being a strong competitor, hoping to garner a bid from colleges and a scholarship. Knowing that Ester admires her popularity, Amy enlists Ester’s help, but taunts her, especially in an emotionally revealing scene. Amy adds she wouldn’t trust her shallow best friend, Reba, (Alex Lonati), with helping her. Perhaps she doesn’t want Reba to know, or she thinks Reba would tell others.
Both Recio and Hughes deliver taut performances, keeping theatergoers’ attention riveted throughout. Portraying college student Victor, Kadahj Bennett is funny, yet touching in an awkward, shy scene with Hughes.
Paul Trainor’s role as the janitor is a prolonged cameo, until he’s needed later, after the girls’ shockingly graphic scene. Members of the ensemble swim team are also under-used, making a brief, collective appearance near the end of the play.
For us critics who have been inundated with new plays about teen-age troubles, “Dry Land” has its moments, but needs some tweaks. No doubt, it would shine as a high school/college production, prompting serious, needed discussion about this perennial problem.
The Boston premiere of 22-year-old playwright Ruby Rae Spiegel’s one-act 105-minute play, “Dry Land,” appearing with Company One through Oct. 30, at Boston Center for the Arts Plaza Theatre, 539 Tremont St., South End, Boston. Check for related activities. Showtimes: Wednesdays, Thursdays, at 7:30 p.m.; Fridays, at 8 p.m.; Saturdays,8 p.m., Sundays, 2 p.m. Tickets, $25-$38;students, $15. Call 617-933-8600, visit bostontheatrescene.com, the BU Theater Box Office, 264 Huntington Ave., Boston, or BCA, 527 Tremont St.