116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
CEDAR RAPIDS — Music’s universal love language weaves through a brief moment in time captured in “Once,” a Theatre Cedar Rapids production opening Friday, Aug. 26, and continuing through Sept. 11 in Brucemore’s outdoor amphitheater.
It’s hailed as the only musical to have garnered Oscar, Grammy, Tony and London’s Olivier awards for its music, including the achingly beautiful “Falling Slowly,” by Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova.
The play, which swept up eight 2012 Tony Awards, including Best Musical, is set in Dublin in the 1990s. But unlike the national touring productions that featured a pub and players who invited the audience up for a pint before the show, Theatre Cedar Rapids is moving the action to the streets of Dublin, and audience members can bring their own pints and picnics to enhance their outdoor experience.
Where: Theatre Cedar Rapids production at Brucemore’s Peggy Whitworth Amphitheater, 2160 Linden Dr. SE, Cedar Rapids
When: Friday, Aug. 26, to Sept. 11; 7:30 p.m. Thursday to Sunday; 90 minutes with one 15-minute intermission
Tickets: $30, Theatre Cedar Rapids Box Office, (319) 366-8591 or theatrecr.org/event/once/2022-08-26/
Note: Contains some adult language, situations, and brief mention of self harm.
Extras: Gates open at 6:30 p.m.; bring seating, bug spray, food and beverages or buy from concessions on-site; no pets, excluding service animals
It’s a mystical, magical tale in which Guy, an Irish singer/songwriter on the verge of giving up, whose music captivates Girl, a young Czech woman who hears him busking on the street, and can see the pain as he tries to abandon his guitar. She strikes a deal that will have him falling slowly back into his music.
They may learn each other’s names, or not, but the audience won’t.
“My thought is that it feels universal, like this fleeting connection between them,” artistic director Angie Toomsen said. “It happens — they kind of have a universe of experience with each other over five days. And so there’s something special about the fact that they may never learn each other’s names in that span of time.
“Their connection is so fast and powerful, and doesn’t require full background knowledge of each other’s lives to make this connection,” she added, “and the reason that happens and is so lightning-fast is because of music.”
Using the historic estate’s outdoor amphitheater and its surroundings reflects and enhances the show’s spirit.
“To me, this show is very mystical,” said Mary Jane Knight, 40, of Iowa City, who portrays Girl. “It lives almost in a realm that is slightly elevated from regular life, because as Angie said, it’s all about the power of music, and music is transcendent. And so out here, you’re more connected to nature and the mystical forces that make life happen.”
“There are very few places in Cedar Rapids more magical than the grounds of Brucemore,” said Tim Riven, 46, of Cedar Rapids, who portrays Guy.
“It just makes an extra layer of elevation on the story — instead of being in a cold theater — that really makes it magical,” Knight added.
Girl and Guy
“I love this character, because it resonates a lot with who I am,” Knight said. “I’ve never played a character that feels more like how the inside of my brain works. The way that she relates to music is so deep. She is an intuitive, gifted, creative individual that just has all of this passion.
“And like lots of women in this life, she’s a mother, and she has to struggle with how can she live that role of a mother while also being this creative, gifted, intuitive person (who) connects with music in such a deep way?
“It’s just fascinating to dig into her and be able to also experience it as a different person than me, as well, and tell this story with Tim,” Knight said.
The characters’ worlds are different, yet entwined.
“Guy is a musician who really has no other outlet for his music other than playing on the street,” Riven said. “He doesn't really know how to do anything. He’s not in any kind of organized band or group where he writes songs and performs them. At the time when Girl comes along, he’s struggling with, ‘Is it worth it? How do I how get this out there?’
“But Girl comes along, and she’s not a street performer, but she sees him on the street, and that’s where that first connection is made.
“And she’s not necessarily a professional musician, either,” Knight pointed out. “Her father was, so she was trained and she understands the musical world, and supposedly she’s learned classical piano. But she instantly, from the first moment of the play, hears the song that Guy’s singing, and can feel and hear the depths of his soul in that first instance. And then the play just goes from there, because it’s an immediate soul connection.”
Girl forces Guy into a conversation, and soon they’re singing together a song he has written “and tucked away in his heart,” Knight said. “As he’s contemplating leaving this pursuit of music behind, she snatches it up and kind of forces the notes into the air, and tells him to breathe.”
It’s a love story, but not in the traditional sense.
“It’s really a love story with music at the center of it,” Riven said. “Music is a partner in that love story, more so than whatever the relationship between Guy and Girl is. And while that may be hard to sort of imagine without seeing the show, hopefully it would make sense in the end.”
“It brings out music’s power to heal, to inspire people to follow their dreams,” Knight said. “Also, music’s power to express things that are not comfortable for us to express out loud, or we’re not able to express through language. It does all of those things. And then the power of love through music. Romantic love, too. All kinds of love.”
All of those elements factor into the paths they explore.
“They both go on this journey of self-discovery,” Knight said. “In five days, quite a few onion layers are peeled off to find a deeper meaning of purpose in life.”
“Often, as people, we get in our own way,” Riven added. “We have dreams, we have things that we would love to do, and we either don’t have the tools to do it or we haven’t given ourselves permission to do the things that we want to do.
“One of the things that I love about this show,” he said, “is that it captures that idea of being immobile, and how do address it? You talk about it, and you share things and you do the things you’re passionate about. And then hopefully, either on an accelerated timeline or over the long term, you find a way to move forward.
“That’s the big kind of growth that we see in each of them,” he said. “They’re immobile to start, and they don't know how to move forward, but then by the end of the show, they’ve helped one another take whatever that next step happens to be after the show.”
The script calls for nearly everyone on stage to sing, dance — and play a musical instrument, from guitars to accordion. That’s a tall order clearly spelled out in audition notices. And it hooked Knight, whose sons are old enough that she’s been able to start doing shows again.
“The idea of getting to play the piano while I’m also in a musical, and sing at the same time, was initially what brought me to the role,” she said. “And then when I dove into it, and I read the script and watched the movie, I was just mesmerized by the story and it’s simplicity, but also its depth all at once.”
“That was where Mary Jane brought all of it,” Toomsen said of casting Knight in the role. “And it’s not just playing piano — it’s also being able to interpret and play with musicality, because it’s about being affected so deeply.”
With a background in opera, Knight has a home vocal instruction studio, is a church musician, and will be teaching voice at Kirkwood Community College this fall. Riven also teaches at Kirkwood, in the wind and solar program, and performs with his guitar around the area.
He fell in love with the movie and its music in 2007, before he started gigging as a musician. He also became “obsessed” with Hansard’s music, and got to see him opening for Eddie Vedder in St. Louis, shortly before the stage version premiered.
“I didn’t get to see it in New York, but I did get to see a touring company of it, and it was everything that I could have ever wanted to see in a musical,” he said.
Both leads are veteran performers, but this marks Riven’s first TCR show since “Legally Blonde” in 2013, and “Once” is Knight’s TCR debut, after appearing this spring in Riverside Theatre’s production of “Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812.”
Toomsen also was immediately drawn to the show and vowed to bring it to TCR’s season, after seeing how well “Bright Star” played at Brucemore last year.
“I was riveted by how different and unique and novel and special and (how ‘Once’ is) so much more rooted in authenticity than traditional musical theater, which I also love,” Toomsen said.
As to the show’s enigmatic title, “I’ve always thought it reflected this moment in time, ” Toomsen said, “and I picture years later Guy saying, ‘Well, once I met a girl,’ or Girl saying, ‘Well, once I met a guy,’ because it’s such a condensed timeline that they’re together.
“But it becomes the title of the show and elevated to that level because it’s so powerful and impactful — essentially this moment in time,” she said. “So that’s been my interpretation of it. And I felt that way from the time I saw the movie.”
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