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Preparing Gammage to hold its breath for 'Once'

"Breathtaking," read so many reviews and descriptions of the beautifully unconventional 2012 Tony Award honoree for Best Musical, ONCE, that at long last reaches ASU Gammage next week. With sensitive insights and wonderful anecdotes, supporting actors Alex Nee (Andrej) and Claire Wellin (Reza) visited by phone yesterday about touring with the Broadway national production playing here April 29 - May 4.

ONCE Cast promotional photos of National Tour cast, 2014
ONCE Cast promotional photos of National Tour cast, 2014
Joan Marcus/ASU Gammage
Claire Wellin (2nd from right) with Broadway National tour of ONCE, April 2014
Joan Marcus/ASU Gammage

Andrej is comic relief for the show," said Nee of his character in the nontraditional love story that's set in an Irish pub. The actors also play their instruments on stage, or inside the bar as it happens. "He's a young Czech immigrant living in Dublin, a friend of Girl; he's excitable and passionate and dreams big."

Reza, on the other hand, is "a force of nature..... fiery, sensual and sexually proud," according to Wellin. Also an immigrant, "she serves as a catalyst for getting Guy and Girl together" in the small ensemble cast. As Girl's best friend, she represents how the community is involved" in how the story unfolds. "She's sort of the audience's voice."

The wisp of a plot focuses on Guy, who is about to throw in the towel on his floundering music career, and Girl, who hears a snippet of Guy's transparently authentic music and gently insists they get musicians together to record Guy's originals, that his tunes are far from finished.

"It's a challenge, a welcome one, to show up and truly listen each performance," Wellin said about keeping the show fresh on a daily basis. "There's a bit of ebb each night."

"The show isn't set in stone; it's a living, breathing thing," continued Nee. "We're encouraged to bring ourselves to our character wherever we're at that day when we get to the theater."

A primary draw of the show, for actors and audience alike, seems to be that the characters get swept up in the joy of creation. The song most audience members are sure to recognize, 'Falling Slowly,' is certainly an apt example. Nee told another creative-outlet story about a sold-out performance earlier in the tour.

'When Your Mind's Made Up' is a heart-wrenching song that devolves into Irish wailing," he described. "In the show, it's the song we all record. The music is pretty cathartic, and at the end the bottom sort of drops out; just Guy sings the last couple words. That night, the silence held for 15 to 20 seconds. Literally, 3500 people were basically holding their breath."

"There are so many messages of hope to me....and to the people listening," interjected Wellin. "And this show just continues to deliver them to me."

Nee suggested it's hard to quantify the intrinsic value of living and giving the sort of emotion that ONCE communicates. "To experience the complete silence erupting to ovation, that dynamic shift from a sense of draining release to vivid accomplishment is....."

Available tickets are quickly dwindling at the box office. Twelve people on stage that can knock the air out of an auditorium is the kind of performance Gammage can't wait to experience.

-Jennifer Haaland

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