by Clark Groome

Gentle. Moving. Funny. Musically rich. Appealing. These are some of the descriptions applicable to “Once,” the multi-layered love story that is currently being given an impressive production at the Arden Theatre Company, 40 N. 2nd St. in Old City.

Based on John Carney’s 2007 movie, “Once” tells the story of Guy (Ken Allen Neely), a vacuum cleaner repairman in Dublin who is also a songwriter, and Girl (Katherine Fried), a Czech who also loves music. The two meet unexpectedly and become fast friends, a friendship that is based on their mutual love of and talent for music.

What they experience is a love affair, but one that is complicated by Guy’s relationship with his much-loved girlfriend who has left him and moved to New York, and Girl’s husband who abandoned her and their daughter when they moved to Ireland.

Glen Hansard’s and Markéta Irglová’s music is the core of the show. That music is the same as their score for the movie, one of whose songs, “Falling Slowly,” won an Oscar.

The original Broadway production won eight Tony Awards including Best Musical in 2012.

Terrence J. Nolen has staged the Arden’s production, which plays through Oct. 28. The Arden’s F. Otto Haas Stage has been configured so the show is played in the round. The cast also uses the various aisles and a platform surrounding and above the audience on which some of the music and some of the dialogue is delivered. Scenic designer David P. Gordon has created a wall around the theater that not only makes it clear we’re in Dublin but also underlines what’s going on on stage. Thom Weaver’s lighting captures just the right moods throughout.

As good as the production is physically — and it’s very good — it is the cast that makes the production the special experience it is. Every performer not only sings and dances Steve Pacek’s lively choreography, but they also all play the many instruments that create the music.
Leading the way are Ken Allen Neely as the attractive, talented and convincing Guy. His heart has clearly been broken, and he is threatening to give up the music he so loves to write and perform and just live out his life in his father’s vacuum cleaner repair shop. His reawakening after he meets Girl is breathtakingly upbeat while maintaining some of the sadness he feels about his loss.

Katherine Fried’s Girl is equally conflicted and equally impressive. Supporting them is a terrific cast that features excellent performances from Scott Greer, Greg Wood, Justin Yoder and, especially, the brilliant and beguiling Lučia Brady, 8 years old, who not only plays Girl’s daughter but is also a major talent as a violinist.

The rest of the company — Alex Bechtel, Charlie DelMarcelle, Mary Fishburne, Kendal Hartse, Emily Mikesell, Skip Robinson and Josh Tortora — is equally adept as actors and musicians.

Nolen has wisely directed the piece to bring out the emotional conflicts that plague the central characters. The play doesn’t end with the guarantee that Girl and Guy will live happily ever after, at least not with each other. It’s too honest for that.

It’s a bittersweet but achingly true story that is enlivened by an Irish/folk/folk rock score that captures the mood and energy of Dublin and its varied and genuine cast of characters. I left the theater on opening night glad to have met them all, moved by their story, entertained by their music and impressed by Nolen’s production.

For tickets call 215-922-1122 or visit www.ardentheatre.org

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