You are here
Home > Arts > FEATURE: Strumming a Richer Tune at DalekoArts in <em>Once</em>

FEATURE: Strumming a Richer Tune at DalekoArts in Once

Singer-actor-dancer-instrumentalists Leslie Vincent (left) and Chris Paulson (right) star in DalekoArts’ production of Once, now playing in New Prague, MN. Photo courtesy of DalekoArts.

“Write what you know.” It’s one of the most common pieces of advice given to poets, novelists, songwriters, and other wielders of writing. To that, one might add “Play what you know” as the parallel advice for singers and actors: to leverage your strengths, experiences, and desires to create a vividly real performance. There a few shows more ripe for this than the musical Once, currently being staged by Daleko Arts in New Prague.

The musical Once began as a movie. The 2007 movie – an Irish indie film – began as an exploration of two musicians meeting, collaborating, and falling in love. Its real-life stars Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová had previously met, reunited to collaborate on the film, and fell in love. Together, they not only starred in the film, but also co-wrote its soundtrack of gripping, soul-aching songs with riveting, actual, on-camera performances. It didn’t hurt that Hansard had paid his dues in his youth, busking on Grafton Street in Dublin – just as his on-camera character did. It certainly didn’t hurt that there was a simmering, unacknowledged romance in real-life, paralleling what was being portrayed on on-set. Play what you know.

When Once was first being re-developed for the stage at the New York Theatre Workshop – four years after the Grammy-nominated film debut – one of the most arresting elements for the audience was that the actors played their instruments right in front of them: no tracks, no miming, no lip-syncing. This emphasis on live, on-stage sound production makes for some interesting casting: you need talents who’ve gone above and beyond the expected sing-dance-act triple threat by mastering instruments as well. They’re not as rare as hen’s teeth, but they don’t exactly grow on trees.

This sort of special case is exactly what makes actors thank god for keeping up with the music lessons. For “Guy” (the lead characters in Once are not given names), director Amanda White and music director Bradley Beahen cast Chris Paulson, a Luther College music alum who plays a mean guitar. For “Girl”, they cast singer-songwriter-actor-instrumentalist Leslie Vincent. The ensemble is rounded out by a long list of singer-actors making their DalekoArts debut with something extra in the music department – Quinn Shadko, for example, plays Girl’s friend Réza while wielding a violin. When’s the last time that you saw a show with on-stage mandolin?

“We’ve definitely had shows in the past where actors have played instruments on stage,” said DalekoArts Artistic Director Ben Thietje. “But this might be the first time every actor on stage has played an instrument. The musicianship has been really fun to watch.”

Indeed, that special opportunity and electricity was its own casting lure. Vincent, who has been lately found in a set of celebrated tours of the area’s concert stages, was enticed back into the theatre.

The cast of DalekoArts’ current production of Once. Photo courtesy of DalekoArts.

“Since COVID, I’ve delved more into my musicianship,” she said. “Releasing a few albums and performing mostly jazz and folk with a band. But there’s so much to love about being in the show. For having such a generic name, “Girl” is one of the most nuanced characters in musical theatre to me. She’s unpredictable and curious—interested and interesting. Her perspective is so unique and Enda Walsh’s script is so delightful.”

A centerpiece of Once is when the different strangers come together and make beautiful music for a few (okay, in this show, many) tantalizing moments. “ONCE appealed to us for many reasons,” said Thietje. “Not the least of which is the fact that the musical includes Czech cultural elements we thought our patrons here in New Prague would find interesting.”

The cast of Once rehearsing. Photo courtesy of DalekoArts.

“Additionally,” he added. “We found ourselves moved by the idea of people from different cultures converging in one space and making something beautiful together. It feels important to tell stories like that today.” [Editor’s Note, May 14: The remainder of DalekoArts’ run of Once is now sold out.”]

Once plays through May 15 at DalekoArts in New Prague, MN.

Basil Considine