by Tracey Paleo, Gia On The Move

Yes, one could rhapsodize ad infinitum, all the facets and faculties physical, emotional and audible, of lead hunkola, Rustin Cole Sailors (Guy) appearing in South Coast Rep‘s musical Irish extravaganza, Once. And I will…in a minute. But it needs to be stressed right at the beginning…the girls are AWESOME!

As Sailors underplayed his role of a decidedly adorable, sensitive, hurt and hopeless romantic, as far in as the late 2nd act, the women of this production stepped squarely into the limelight, from ‘jump’, with the most muscular and exciting musical and movement performances throughout the entire show without a single meek or apologetic step-back.

Actor/Musician Cassidy Stirtz (Reza) arrives at South Coast Rep with the added bonus to her gutsy, sensual stage-stomping and spectacular violinist talents of having appeared in the first national tour of this play.

Marina Schon (Ex-girlfriend) does not have the largest role as the far away object of affection and additional instrumental cast member, but whether with words, music or dance movement, she is lively and bright.

Amanda Leigh Jerry (Girl/lead) making her debut at South Coast Rep in this production, does so with a vibrant exuberance that is refreshing and comical. Her emotional resonance is permeated with incredible impact in pause as much as she is in driving this production with tearful hopefulness at every turn. ‘Spunk’, I think is the word that fits.

Christian Pedersen, Cassidy Stirtz and Rustin Cole Sailors in 'Once'. Photo by Jordan Kubat.
Christian Pedersen, Cassidy Stirtz and Rustin Cole Sailors in ‘Once’.
Photo by Jordan Kubat.

The chemistry between Sailors and Jerry is evident from the first moments and never abates. In fact, by the time they are both ready to admit they’ve fallen for one another, the audience has already been writhing and rooting in their seats for this pair to crystallize what is obviously the kind of soul-mate, connection that is rarely seen or lived.

But the ending is bitter-sweet. And in the final moments, there is no amount of tissue that can plug the heartbreak of love, honor and the pain of letting go, that leads to the joy of ones dreams coming to fruition.

Once follows a Dublin street musician who’s about to give up on his dream when a beautiful young woman takes a sudden interest in his haunting love songs. As the chemistry between them begins to grow, his music soars to powerful, new heights. Theirs is an unlikely connection, though, that turns out to be deeper and more complex than other everyday romances. Once is an unforgettable story about going for one’s dreams and the power of music to connect us all.

There are hilarious performances by the supporting cast that without them, this show would not be as satisfying.

Heading up the hilarity is Alex Nee (Andrej) also from the first national tour of Once, as the Girl’s immigrant friend and roommate mostly failing at improving the conditions of his very small Dublin existence.

Followed up by his sort of side-kick and over-enthusiast metal head drummer Zach Spound (Svec) who just can’t be kept down.

And…Andy Taylor (Bank Manager) reprising the role he originated in the original Broadway production, who can’t write a song to save his life, but on faith finances the recording of the Guy’s wow-factor music.

Nicholas Mongiardo-Cooper (Billy) rounds out this assemblage of clown-like characters with his own spectacular goofiness and clarity as do Scott Anthony (Eamon), ​Christian Pedersen (Emcee), Diane King Vann (​Baruska) and ​Scott Waara (​Da – also from the National Tour).

In the end, though, it is the absolute mesmerizing vocals and instrumentals by Sailors that captivates and holds the emotional level at a high boil throughout with a naive and passionate charm.

Everything about this show is cause for taking many deep breaths in between sobs and high-octane, dance-in-your-seat jitters.

Accolades to Andy Taylor (Music Director), Kelly Todd (Choreography)Ralph Funicello (Scenic Design), Leah Piehl (Costume Design), Lap Chi Chu (Lighting Design), Lindsay Jones (Sound Design), Philip D. Thompson (Dialect Coach), Sue Karutz* (Stage Manager) and Kathryn Davies (Assistant Stage Manager).

Highly recommended.

Book by Enda Walsh
Music & Lyrics by Glen Hansard & Markéta Irglová
Based on the motion picture written and directed by John Carney
Directed by Kent Nicholson
Cast: Scott Anthony, Amanda Leigh Jerry, Aoife McEvoy, Nicholas Mongiardo-Cooper, Alex Nee, Christian Pedersen, Rustin Cole Sailors, Marnina Schon, Zach Spound, Cassidy Stirtz, Andy Taylor, Diane King Vann, Jacqueline Vellandi and Scott Waara.
Segerstrom Stage
September 2, 2017 – September 30, 2017

Photo: Rustin Cole Sailors and Amanda Leigh Jerry in South Coast Repertory’s 2017 production of Once.