Intimate show ‘Once’ celebrates music, community

By Kerry Clawson
Beacon Journal staff writer

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(From left) Donna Garner as Baruska, Alex Nee as Andrej, Dani de Waal as Girl, Claire Wellin as Reza and Matt DeAngelis as Svec play Czechoslovakian characters in Once, the Tony Award-winning musical, which is coming to PlayhouseSquare's Palace Theatre Nov. 12-24. The musical takes place in a Dublin pub.

n the intimate folk musical Once, all of the characters are riffing off a lost love, according to book writer Enda Walsh.

The Tony Award-winning musical, based on the Oscar-winning independent Irish film starring Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova, celebrates love, music and community with a grace and grit that creators worked hard to keep true to the offbeat charm of the movie.

The musical, an ensemble effort that won 2012 best musical among its other Tonys, follows the unexpected friendship and musical collaboration between main characters Guy and Girl, who over one life-changing week form a community with other artists in a Dublin pub.

“They’re an ensemble of misshapen people who sing and tell the story,” Irish playwright Walsh said.

The musical tour, which opens Tuesday at Playhouse­Square’s Palace Theatre and runs through Nov. 24, follows the complicated romance that grows through the emotional songs that angst-ridden Irish street singer/songwriter Guy and his muse, Czech immigrant Girl, create together. The score and lyrics are by Hansard and Irglova, featuring the Oscar-winning ballad Falling Slowly.

The bittersweet story explores how people who are in each other’s lives for a short time may empower each other to move forward. Guy is a vacuum repairman while Girl, the central storyteller, sells flowers to support her family.

Chicago musician/actress Claire Wellin, who plays Czech woman Reza on tour, was the first replacement for that role on Broadway from March to May. The musical, which opened in March 2012, continues to play on Broadway.

Reza, Girl’s best friend and housemate, serves as a foil to the main character. She’s fierce and abrasive, while Girl is generally softer.

“She seduces men for fun and she’s really comfortable in her body as a sexual tool,” Wellin said of Reza, who’s seductive, playful and always wants to have fun.

Wellin was a college student at Minnesota State University when the movie Once came out in 2007, and was instantly a huge fan. She was performing in a jazz-based duo and enjoyed performing Live, Falling Slowly and When Your Mind’s Made Up from the movie with her partner.

Wellin, who leads the gypsy folk band Youth in a Roman Field, is performing in her second folk musical, following the Chicago-based Eastland last summer. Right now, nothing could be more rewarding than performing in a musical that tells a story of the healing power of music, she said.

“It really is a dream job,” Wellin said of Once. “Music is so in my bones and has been part of my life before I even have memories of it.”

The tour rehearsed in New York in August and launched in October in Providence, R.I. Wellin said she was thrilled to be hired for the tour on her last day performing on Broadway. It’s an exciting time for this busy musician, who is a violinist: Her band at home is also about to release its debut album.

“I feel like music is all of my life right now and I like it that way,” she said.

As Reza, Wellin plays violin onstage. She also gets to experiment with different instruments in a pre-show jam session, in which audience members are invited to come up to the onstage pub to order a drink and hang out with the 12 cast musicians. Here, she plays mandolin, ukulele, tambourine and the percussive cajon, a rectangular box.

“We’re all just very playful up on the stage,” Wellin said of the jam session. “It’s one of my favorite parts of my day. … It’s like this playground where anything goes.”

The story, set during the recession in Ireland, deals with characters going through economic difficulty. Guy and Girl form a band so they can record demos of the songs they’ve created together. In the movie, a montage shows that process, while on stage, the other musicians are more deeply involved.

“The amazing thing about the play is that there are characters that weren’t in the movie, and the characters that are there are more fully realized,” Wellin said.

As a violinist, Wellin sings parts that are completely different from what she’s playing simultaneously on her instrument — an incredibly difficult feat. In Gold, the entire adult cast also dances en masse while they’re playing their instruments.

“They [creative directors] ask a lot of us but we also have a lot to give,” Wellin said.

The emotional Act II-ending Gold is Wellin’s favorite song: “I think it’s sort of about magic — the magic of another person.”

Arts writer Kerry Clawson may be reached at 330-996-3527 or

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