Darlinghurst Theatre Company: Once – Theatre Review

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Once’s Australian premiere was almost ten years ago in Melbourne.

Admittedly, I never thought I’d see Once play in this city again. Thankfully, Darlinghurst Theatre Company have been holding the torch to this Tony Award winning musical since 2019, and while some of the cast members have changed throughout the years, many of them have remained the same.

Initially slated to come to Melbourne much earlier, Darlinghurst Theatre Company have been patient and never gave up on bringing their production of Once to Melbourne. Finally, in May 2023, it is back in its spiritual home. And let me tell you, it was so worth the wait.

Making itself at home in Melbourne’s Comedy Theatre, Darlinghurst Theatre Company’s production is non-replica, and while I do deeply miss the pre-show magic of the original Broadway replica 2014 Australian premiere production, Darlinghurst Theatre Company’s Once is just as special.

Directed by Richard Carroll with musical direction by Victoria Falconer, based on the 2017 film of the same name, with music and lyrics by Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová including the Academy Award winning song ‘Falling Slowly’, Once tells the captivating tale of a Dublin singer-songwriter who is about to give up on his dreams. That is, until he meets an inquisitive girl who is enchanted by his haunting music and talents. The two instantly have chemistry and inspire each other, but this is not your average love story.

Once’s staging is minimal, providing the bones of a Dublin pub. But its purposefully simple, allowing for the show’s music, its stars, its story, and its intimate lighting be the heroes of this production. Instead of an on-stage bar and Irish folk songs, the cast of DTC’s Once wander around the venue pre-show, either on stage or in the stalls, interacting and singing whatever comes to them to the audience, all while the venue quickly fills with patrons eager to take their seats. The cast are already in character during the pre-show moments and we get a glimpse of these quirky and somewhat cheeky characters that make up Once.

What makes Once so special is that the cast, consisting of Toby Francis as Guy, Stefanie Caccamo as Girl, Anthony Craig as Bank Manager, Ruby Clark as Ex-Girlfriend, Clay Crighton as Eamon, Victoria Falconer as Reza, Pavan Kumar Hari as Svec, Jay Laga’aia as Da, Abe Mitchell as Andrej, Rupert Reid as Billy, Patrick Schnur as Emcee/Swing, Jennifer Trijo as Baruska, and understudy Billie Palin, also make up the orchestra of this production. Each cast member can masterfully wield multiple instruments and do so throughout the production, all talented musicians in their own right.

While I do admittedly miss parts of Once’s original production, there are many things that I adore about DTC’s Once that I feel improve the intimate moments of this heartfelt musical. This is evident during the performance of ‘Say It To Me Now’, my favourite song of the musical. The choice of having every cast member in the background play a guitar, slowly moving to become one is majestic and mesmerising, appearing almost like a dance. This is all while Toby FrancisGuy is singing his heart out to a bank manager under the instructions of Stefanie Caccamo’s Girl as they apply for a loan. It is by far one of the most powerful scenes of this production. But the most powerful one in the second act had me quietly sobbing in my seat.

Toby Francis’ vocals are phenomenal. As Guy, he alone transports you to the bleeding heart of Dublin where so many fantastic musicians come from. Within a few moments of the musical’s beginnings, Francis makes you believe he’s from there too. Stefanie Caccamo is hypnotising and sublime as Girl. Her performances of both ‘If You Want Me‘ and ‘The Hill’ are by far some of the most stunning of this production. If you don’t love her beforehand, you’ll be in awe of her by the end of the show.

Crowd favourite Bank Manager Anthony Craig almost steals the show with his rendition of ‘Abandoned in Bandon’, musical director Victoria Falconer doubles as a cast member and is unapologetically loud and sassy as Reza. Jay Lag’aia is wonderful as Da and his chemistry with Toby Francis feels so natural and believable, their moments together actually moved me more than the original production ever did.

Rupert Reid‘s Billy, Pavan Kumar Hari‘s Svec, and Abe Mitchell‘s Andrej are so charismatic and hilarious, you can’t help but smile whenever they step onto the stage. I also have to praise Jennifer Trijo‘s Baruska who commands your attention whenever she is in the spotlight, both intimidating and very, very funny.

DTC’s Once takes you to Dublin and the lives of these endearing characters without ever having you leave your seat, let alone the country. Throughout the 11 years of this musical’s existence, I’ve never seen anything quite like it. This musical is a true gem and we are so lucky that Darlinghurst Theatre Company have fought through many challenges, obstacles, and have poured their heart and soul into bringing this musical back to Melbourne.

I had the pleasure of seeing this musical production in Sydney last year at the Eternity Playhouse and seeing DTC’s Once in Melbourne’s Comedy Theatre (with a slightly different cast as well) is a completely different experience. It is elevated, emotional, and is even more stunning than it ever was before. Understandably the original film, the original musical production, and Glen Hansard would be hard acts to follow, and I promise you that hearing the songwriter sing these musical numbers that he created live was also an incredible experience. But through everyone involved in DTC’s Once with an exceptional cast and crew, their powers combined have created, I dare say, the perfect show that this musical deserves.

I reinstate that we are so lucky that DTC have brought Once down here because I never thought I’d ever see this musical on stage in Australia again. I must mention that Peter Rubie’s lighting design is almost another character of this production. Perfectly framing the many intimate moments that this musical provides, I am completely envious of those that are seeing Once for the first time through this show.

Once is the perfect marriage between live music and theatre, and Darlinghurst Theatre Company’s production of Once is exquisitely magnificent and heart-warmingly charming. It doesn’t matter whether you’re an avid theatre fan or a dedicated live music goer, Once is for you. And if this musical doesn’t warm your heart and move you (it moved me to tears), then nothing ever will.

Darlinghurst Theatre Company’s Once is now playing at Melbourne’s Comedy Theatre until June 4.
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Photography by Grant Alexander.

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