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‘Once’ may not be enough

It’s becoming a little tricky to be seen as an objective reviewer when it comes to productions at the Oregon Cabaret Theatre. For some time now, the company has been producing record hit after record hit, with a fairly reliable sell-out crowd and an ongoing standard of excellence that makes one selfishly wish that they might at least give us one mediocre show so that a reviewer can redeem some balance, pan the thing, and reboot their neutrality, so to speak.

However, OCT continues to shine, and “Once: The Musical” (a Tony-award winning extravaganza that swept up 12 nominations after its debut on Broadway in 2012) is another solid win for director Valerie Rachelle and her handpicked brood of triple-threat thespians.

Set in Dublin in the not-too-distant past, “Once” tells the story of a young busker (who is identified only as “Guy”) who plays heartfelt ballads on an old but faithful guitar, plying his craft in a humble local bar while also toiling days in a vacuum repair shop owned by his father. He meets “Girl,” a young Czech woman who overhears his performance and is intrigued.

This simple premise leads to a bittersweet, short-lived and emotional romance in a production that is well-conceived but more grounded and melancholy than many of the more vigorous shows that have been mounted at OCT over the past couple of years. This production is elegant and delightful, an understated patchwork of emotional connectivity between potential lovers, old friends and musical comrades who huddle together in a modest shop belonging to their mutual friend Billy, making music and burgeoning their personal connections.

As Guy, Christopher Fordinal is an endearing and attractive romantic lead, with a beautiful baritone and a strong capacity for connecting with his audience. Newcomer Olivia Nice — whose acting training includes time at The Studio / New York — is an excellent performer with a strong emotional delivery that is never overplayed and always graceful.

This is hard to achieve in a production that could overflow into territory of saccharine sentimentality. Ms. Nice elbows her way out of the obvious ingenue role and into something quite special, giving her character the opportunity to exercise a willful and humorous personality and, despite a less than ideal end result, never come off as the victim.

A ridiculously skillful ensemble cast of actors are also adept at movement (perhaps thanks to Ms. Rachelle’s reliably deft choreography) and all seem to play at least one instrument. At certain points throughout the show, there are as many as 10 instruments being played on stage, but this feast of talent never becomes overwhelming, a credit to Rachelle’s continued evolution as a director of note.

All the artists deserve kudos, but special mention must go to a few. As Billy, Chuck McLane is a masterful comedic presence, with a broad Dublin accent and a socialist contempt for any whiff of The Establishment. In her role as Baruska, Livia Genise serves up a feast despite limited time in the limelight. Cat Paterson almost steals the show with a deliberately pitiable musical performance as a bank manager who’s trying for the stage, and Izzy Fichera is very dear as Girl’s young daughter, Ivanka.

The show is filled with heart-string tugging hits that are sure to please. An exchange between Guy and his “Da” (played by Jon Lambie) is particularly throat-lump inducing, and will be a familiar story to anyone from an immigrant family who has made their way to the United States, which young Guy eventually does — despite romantic circumstances back home.

This is an intimate , bittersweet and simultaneously entertaining hit that has already generated significant buzz. Opening night played to a full house. I’ve no doubt that the success of the show will continue, and that audiences will leave “Once” with a strong desire to see it twice.

— Ashland resident Jeffrey Gillespie is a Tidings columnist, arts reviewer and freelance writer. Email him at gillespie.jeffrey@gmail.com.