The second act of the Bucks County Playhouse production of “Once” contains a special moment when a crucial, emotion-fraught recording session ends, and the heroine, simply called Girl (Mackenzie Lesser-Roy), and the male lead, called Guy (Matt DeAngelis), exchange deep, meaningful looks accompanied by words of endearment in his native English and her native Czech.
The moment is profound in all it reveals about a couple who meet by kismet, bond via mutual joshing, and build a relationship so troubled with obstacles that it seems doomed despite being so real and so right. Now they finally share a much-awaited nod of understanding and an instant in which each declares his or her love for the other.
Lesser-Roy and DeAngelis play the scene beautifully. Intensity and warmth pervade the Playhouse stage. Expectations of disappointed romance fade as genuine affection blooms palpably and exquisitely, even though Girl and Guy never touch but only glance and speak niceties.
The moment is special because it is one of a kind. “Once” director Travis Greisler clearly and competently conveys Enda Walsh’s story of a melancholy Irish musician, pining after his ex who has moved to New York City, and the dynamic Czech woman who recognizes his talent and encourages him in several important directions, including making a demo tape of his plaintive, romance-laden songs.
Greisler’s production neatly captures a milieu in which a close-knit Dublin community includes a household of Czechs, their cultures meshing and clashing in ways the director keeps colorful and interesting.
With the abundant help of choreographer Misha Shields and a company whose individual and choral voices are angelic, Greisler creates marvelous musical sequences in which Shields’ geometric patterning is often as exciting as the singing is lovely or spirited in proper turns. He knows how to give performers their due, allowing “Once” to be at times completely presentational.
There is much good and entertaining that Greisler provides, and his “Once” rates attention, but only in the moment lauded above does it coalesce into being arrestingly moving and commandingly bittersweet.
Before and after that moment, the production is content to relate Walsh’s plot in a way that registers and engages but remains admirable from a distance.
All is plain. Guy rues his girlfriend’s leaving and, in a quandary about what to do, threatens to stop singing his compositions and nurse his wounds living dully as an assistant in his father’s vacuum cleaner repair shop. Girl, a whirlwind of energy and activity, hears Guy’s music and romantic plight and recommends he pursue both a career and the ex by making a tape and peddling it in New York.
Complications ensue. Guy is attracted to Girl and forgets his ex when in her presence. Girl has a daughter and reveals she is married to the girl’s father, who plans to join them in Dublin.
But the couple’s rush to make the demo in five non-stop days forges a close, friendly business partnership, even as many around them, and the audience, see love in embryo.
Enough is gleaned and understood to instill hope Girl and Guy will overcome circumstances and come together, but such feelings remain more intellectual than emotional because Lesser-Roy and DeAngelis make few outward signs of their love.
Then comes the big moment when they can pretend no more, a scene more marked because Greisler’s “Once” played so aloof.
The sudden difference in mood and tone make that scene more poignant, especially after the short, spoken passage that contains the inner calamity of Guy not knowing what Girl says in Czech and Girl refusing to translate her cathartic expression of love into English.
“Aloof” is not to be misconstrued for “dull.” “Once” is a musical that provides ample opportunity for liveliness and uplift.
Before the show formally begins, the cast is on stage, instruments in hand, feet skittering and leaping in abandon, in a rousing ceili that shows off some glorious voices and makes one eager to see the ensemble dance in earnest.
“Once” is chocked with songs by Glen Hansard and Marketa Iglova, who played Guy and Girl in the 2007 John Carney film on which the musical is based.
In addition to Lesser-Roy and DeAngelis, performers Seth Eliser, Jacob Brandt, Tina Stafford, Brandon Ellis, Andy Paterson, Elizabeth Flanagan, Lauren Wright, Jenn Chandler, Joseph Valle-Hoag, Ryan Halsaver, and Olivia Pirrone accompany themselves on instruments ranging from guitar and violin to mandolin and bouzouki. They are as nimble on the keys and strings as they are on their feet.
Brandt, Wright, Chandler, Stafford, and Ellis also provide fine dramatic and comic moments, although I wish Greisler and Chandler had been subtler and less bombastic in presenting a song that is intended to be sung badly.
The composers could not ask for better than Matt DeAngelis as a lead singer. DeAngelis makes you believe he is indeed the Guy who wrote the honest, heartfelt, yearning, or celebrating songs about love in all its vagaries. DeAngelis’ range is delightfully and powerfully astounding. His words come from Guy’s gut and are all the more effective because they seem so genuine.
Mackenzie Lesser-Roy dominates the stage with her likably fiery portrayal of Girl, whose spunk, acumen, and Czech seriousness make her seem certain to be a success. Lesser-Roy makes Girl’s story the one you care most about.
Nate Bertone’s set is functional, leaving lots of room for dance, but doesn’t approach the mood of a Dublin pub. Travis McHale’s lighting helps define individual spaces and adds texture to scenes. Bart Fasbender and Sam Kuznetz blessedly create a sound design that allows lyrics to be intelligible.
Once, Bucks County Playhouse, 70 South Main Street, New Hope, PA, Through November 30, Tuesday and Thursday, 7:30 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, 8 p.m. and Wednesday, Thursday, Saturday, and Sunday, at 2 p.m. $65 to $70. 215-862-2121 or www.bcptheater.org.