REVIEW: Once at the Academy of Music

The ensemble cast is the best Philly has seen out of a Broadway tour this season.

Mackenzie Lesser-Roy and Sam Cieri.

Mackenzie Lesser-Roy and Sam Cieri.

I don’t think there’s been a recent Broadway musical as polarizing to New York theatre goers as Once, the winner of 2012’s Tony for Best Musical: They either are absolutely bowled over by it’s style, or totally hate it for it’s unconventional staging and music. After watching the Dublin-inspired show on Friday night at the Academy, I lean much more towards being deeply moved and wowed by the heartfelt score and story, not to mention the insanely talented company.

Based off of the 2007 film of the same name (most known for it’s signature anthem “Falling Slowly” which is included several times in the Broadway show), Once is about as far from traditional as you can get. There’s no orchestra as the ensemble plays all of their own instruments (a la John Doyle’s Company and Sweeney Todd), plus before the show starts and during intermission, audience members are welcomed on the stage to purchase drinks via the musical’s set/bar. The music is gorgeous, but with the exception of “Falling Slowly,” there aren’t any sweeping eleven o’clock numbers or huge choral moments. In short, Cats this is not (and thank God).

The two main characters don’t even have names. Nevertheless, the actor-musicians playing the leads in the 2016 national tour are simply phenomenal. Sam Cieri, who takes on the musically-gifted and deeply depressed male part, was absolutely outstanding, and quite a non-traditional performer as well: Mr. Cieri, a Boca Raton native and former Vegas dueling piano player, has few theatrical credits to his name, yet he demonstrated not only impressive vocal power but a fine sense of acting.

Mackenzie Lesser-Roy tackles the complex, at times dark and sarcastic, ingenue with great depth and characterization. She’s also gets several opportunities to play the piano in the production, and I couldn’t help but be moved by her early rendition of a Mendelssohn piece.

In fact, the entire cast is really quite outstanding, presenting one of the strongest ensembles I’ve seen so far during the Kimmel’s Broadway in Philadelphia season. They performed the Irish-infused score with rigor and tackled Steven Hoggett’s unique choreography throughout the evening, which is more a highly-coorindated series of set changes than formal dance, so to speak. Plus, the cast features several locally-bred performers, including Doylestown’s Liam Fennecken.

What a shame that the tour only sits in Philly through the weekend: The packed crowd on the Friday night opener proved that the show would have been a huge success for a week-long run at the Academy, if not longer.

“Once” runs through January 17 at the Academy of Music. For more information, click here.