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Once The Musical – In Concert (London Palladium)

(seen at the evening performance on 12th March 2023)

How does such an intimate show fare in the vast space of the London Palladium? Dean Johnson’s “concert staging” production answers that question with a resounding “grand, thank you.”

A recalcitrant sound cable stopping the show for fifteen minutes only enhanced proceedings as Carrie Hope Fletcher’s “Girl” manipulated reluctant Jamie Muscato’s “Guy” into a second full rendition of “Falling Slowly” to pick up proceedings again.

In itself, “Once” remains a very simple story of “Guy” meets “Girl” as he busks on the streets of his native Dublin. He fixes her vacuum cleaner (not a euphemism) and is drawn into her world – Dublin’s immigrant Czech community. She boosts his career; they don’t fall in love and he buys her a piano. As usual, it ends with the monkey in tears as the final number plays.

Really a remarkable event. Johnson manages to keep every element of the original – the “actor / musicians” and pretty much all the usual fully staged show intact minus a little choreography, clifftop scenery and the tricky Czech subtitle sequences. No need for the usual elaborate bar set either – a platform, piano, assorted chairs and stools and a transport crate suggesting well enough everything required.

This was also very much Jamie Muscato’s night. Loud and angry “Leave” opening chords shaking the show awake, realisation dawning “Falling Slowly,” self-mocking “Broken-Hearted Hoover Fixer Sucker Guy” and actualisation “Sleeping” - all leading to reconciliation and that moment which gets the monkey every time.

Carrie Hope Fletcher puts in the work on her Czech pronunciation, allowing a little Irish to dribble in as Girl would in her adopted city. Her well-known “agony aunt” persona serves her perfectly as she copes with the huge emotional distresses of all around her. That she finds time for her own feelings in “The Hill” makes that solo moment of performance all the more special.

The show is very much an ensemble piece, and the ensemble here are outstanding. Kamilla Gregorovitch’s Reza is a hot pistol going to slay any man she points it at – and her violin is an equal weapon.

Girl’s mother Baruska (Susanna Van Den Berg) and daughter Ivonka (Mia Raggio) are central to Girl’s life and Van Den Berg’s approval of Guy is a lovely comic moment. As for Raggio, the rest of the cast may be acting as besotted with her as the audience were... but probably plotting “Joseph Dreamcoat” style for the little scene-stealer... terrific curtain-call moment for her was unforgettable.

On the Irish side, Alasdair Macrae’s Da is a resolute widower creating a touching moment as he allows his son to follow his dreams. Sean Keany (Billy) is a giant ball of confused masculinity, heavily protective. His antipathy then friendship with Angus Tikka’s Bank Manager is a little comedy gold.

Tikka himself brings an amusing blend of wimpish misguided confidence – managing to look crushed at Girl’s withering critique of his vocal abilities. Studio boss Eamon (Phil Adele) on the other hand realises quickly the potential of the group and Adele does an excellent job suggesting the environment of his premises on the wide empty stage.

In small roles, Christina Tedders as the Ex-Girlfriend comes into her own beautifully in the final phone call, and pairs well with Gregorovitch on violin. Michael Vien’s Emcee likewise is strong setting up the pub singing to end the first act.

Among the Czech flatmates, Jos Slovick’s (Andrej) pain at not getting his promotion is very real and reaches every corner of the auditorium emotionally. Loris Scarpa’s (Svec) enthusiasm and coffee-induced clowning likewise, and he is a talented drummer as well.

When the ensemble come together for the reprise of “Gold” sung ‘A Cappella’ the Palladium falls quieter than silent, glorious vocal harmonies (all credit Adam Hoskins as musical director) and dappled lighting (Joseph Ed Thomas) in a few minutes summing up the entire evening and creating an unerasable tableau.  

Long rated as the best new musical the monkey saw in that decade, this concert proved that the show is potentially declarable as a modern classic and is certainly considerably more adaptable than the careful productions afforded to it so far. A symphonic version at the Royal Albert Hall perhaps, and if this cast and creative team are available, so much the better.

5 stars, standing ovation.


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