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"Once" at Horizon FEB 2020
The company of "Once" at Horizon Theatre is (from left) Sophia Sapronov, Hayden Rowe, Skyler Brown, Maggie Salley, Chase Peacock, Chris Damiano, Daniel Burns and Jessica De Maria.

Review: A few sour notes can’t subdue exhilaration of “Once” at Horizon Theatre

Let’s knock this out of the way first and foremost. I’m a sucker for Once, both John Carney’s 2007 film and the Tony Award-winning musical that played Broadway five years later. Its Oscar-winning song “Falling Slowly” — written by Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová, who played the lead couple in the movie — brings me to a halt to savor every word or makes me sing aloud.

Lisa Adler, Horizon Theatre’s co-artistic director, has pursued the project for years and has finally snagged it. Heidi Cline McKerley directs and choreographs the show (running through March 8), which has some execution issues but should mostly please fans of the material.

The musical follows the film pretty closely. Its central duo is known only as Guy and Girl. Guy (Chase Peacock) sings and plays guitar on a Dublin street corner, where he meets Girl (Maggie Salley), a young Czech immigrant. She learns that he’s written most of his songs for a girlfriend who has since moved to New York, has largely given up on his music dreams and works as a vacuum cleaner repairman. Girl’s vacuum needs fixing, and she wants to pay him by playing her piano. They start to spend time together, romantic feelings rise and they plan to record music together.

"Once" Horizon FEB 2020
Guy and Girl — they have no other character names — are Chase Peacock and Maggie Salley. He plays guitar, she’s a pianist.

The supporting cast (Skyler Brown, Daniel Burns, Chris Damiano, Jessica De Maria, Paul Glaze, Violet Montague, Hayden Rowe and Sophia Sapronov) double as the band, playing violin, cello, mandolin, bass, accordion, piano and more onstage. Having the band onstage is wonderful and can be glorious to hear. The ensemble even does a few songs before the show begins. (Actor-director Carolyn Cook served as dialect coach and the accents seem authentic).

Once, adapted by Irish playwright Enda Walsh with music by Hansard and Irglová, requires a more intimate space to thrive. Its Broadway home — the 1,078-seat Bernard Jacobs Theatre — was ideal, but the national tour production was swallowed by the 4,678-seat Fox Theatre. Horizon’s 172 seats are a much more comfortable fit.

McKerley is a dependable director and one of the best in Atlanta when it comes to musicals. She and set/projection designers Isabel Curley-Clay and Moriah Curley-Clay put this production in the round. On Broadway, the ensemble would stay largely within the confines of one location, whether it was a club or a recording studio. McKerley has her performers pop in and out of doors, up and down stairs in the audience, and back and forth on various sections of the stage. It’s too much. The frenzied, nonstop action detracts from what’s essentially a small, tender show.

And maybe it was opening-night jitters, but several performers ham it up. Guy goes into a bank for a loan. The banker (Glaze) is a musician himself, wants to play for Guy and a funny moment between the two goes south when Glaze overacts. Brown, too, can go broad, and the musical makes some awkward attempts at laughter.

There’s still much to admire here, including the music and the two central performances. When all the players onstage are in sync and more contained, Once can be kind of beautiful. Two of the musical’s more noted songs, the Act 1 closer “Gold” and the exuberant “When Your Mind’s Made Up,” are thrilling.

Peacock is well-suited to play the shaggy Guy. At times he’s a little too restrained, but he ably shades the character, giving him an initial air of resignation. Peacock’s voice is rich and expressive, and he handles most of the vocal challenges.

Salley (Lucille Frank in Parade at Wallace Buice Theatre) is flat-out superb. She turns what could be a cliché — an irresistible free spirit — into a real person. Her character is Guy’s muse and their friendship/near-romance brings a palpable charge to him — and maybe her as well. Salley’s Act 2 solo “The Hill” is gorgeous, as she reveals feelings she can’t articulate in person. She and Peacock are memorable, bonding over their love of music and what they’ve created together.

This Once isn’t perfect, but when it clicks it’s pretty irresistible. The show’s first rendition of “Falling Slowly” — performed hesitantly by Guy and Girl — is simple and haunting. The final version, which closes the show, is more emotional. It involves the entire cast and lots of orchestrations. There may not be a more exhilarating, goose-bump moment all season.